The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

( 52 )

Overview

With his teaching career derailed by tragedy and his slacker days numbered, Webster Fillmore Goodhue makes an unlikely move and joins Clean Team, charged with tidying up L.A.'s grisly crime scenes. For Web, it's a steady gig, and he soon finds himself sponging a Malibu suicide's brains from a bathroom mirror and flirting with the man's bereaved and beautiful daughter.

Then things get weird: The dead man's daughter asks a favor. Every cell in Web's brain tells him to turn her ...

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Overview

With his teaching career derailed by tragedy and his slacker days numbered, Webster Fillmore Goodhue makes an unlikely move and joins Clean Team, charged with tidying up L.A.'s grisly crime scenes. For Web, it's a steady gig, and he soon finds himself sponging a Malibu suicide's brains from a bathroom mirror and flirting with the man's bereaved and beautiful daughter.

Then things get weird: The dead man's daughter asks a favor. Every cell in Web's brain tells him to turn her down, but something makes him hit the Harbor Freeway at midnight to help her however he can. Soon enough it's Web who needs the help when gun-toting California cowboys start showing up on his doorstep. What's the deal? Is it something to do with what he cleaned up in that motel room in Carson? Or is it all about the brewing war between rival trauma cleaners? Web doesn't have a clue, but he'll need to get one if he's going to keep from getting his face kicked in. Again. And again. And again.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“There are many things to love about Charlie Huston’s fiction–he’s a brilliant storyteller, and writes the best dialogue since George V. Higgins–but what pushes my personal happy-button is his morbid sense of humor and seemingly effortless ability to create scary/funny bad guys who make Beavis and Butthead look like Rhodes Scholars. [Charlie Huston has] written several very good books, but this is the first authentically great one, a runaway freight that feels like a combination of William Burroughs and James Ellroy. Mystic Arts is, however, fiercely original–very much its own thing.”—Stephen King

“Smoking-hot… scorchingly good dialogue and banner-worthy chapter headings (like “Till His Neighbors Smelled Him” and “To Keep Him From Crushing My Spine.”). And Mr. Huston, whose own brain matter is as much on display as the stuff that gets spattered here, finally delivers a book that anyone can admire. No strong stomach required.”—New York Times

“Huston has outdone himself by introducing disaster-prone Web Goodhue, the star of a comic masterpiece called The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death…Charlie Huston has for several years been one of the best-kept secrets in American fiction; this novel might move him into the mainstream. If you believe that the world is mad–a position that with each passing day becomes easier to accept–The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death will provide welcome support for your view. The novel had me laughing out loud many times, but of course, like all the best comic fiction (Catch-22 and Portnoy's Complaint come to mind), at bottom it is deadly serious. Life is violent, messy and all too short, and laughter is the best revenge.”—Washington Post

“Just when you think you’ve caught up with him on the curve, Charlie Huston drives right off the cliff, landing on a road no one else could see…Shockingly original…The outlandish characters are brazen originals, and the dialogue is the roar of a death-defying talent.”—New York Times Book Review

“A witty and amusing dark tale of friendship and family and all the problems that come with both. Web is a likeable character in spite of his personality disorder, one that the reader wants to see come out on top, which makes the book that much more fun to read.”—bookbitch.com

“Though most of the characters have all the noir subtlety of Sin City, this hard-shelled novel has a soft, sweet centre. Searching for a measure of healing and to repair the damage done them by their parents and the world, the good characters struggle toward redemption. [Huston] has found a way to cast a whole new generation into the noir genre and that can only be a good thing for its future.”—reviewingtheevidence.com

“Genre writers too often set the hook quickly and hard, glossing over the subtleties of character in their haste to reel in the reader, ultimately using plot as a club. Not so Huston…The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is as darkly funny as it is graceful, not necessarily what you'd expect given that it's a novel about a guy whose livelihood involves mopping up blood and bone fragments…If one tends to find humor in unlikely places, Huston has created a work that is sly, twisted and surprising–one well worth the investment of time.”—Denver Post

“Huston's novels are among the most imaginative and compelling in the mystery and thriller genres…In The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, Huston finds pathos and the sublime in a story about an occupation for which there is no training or career path.”—Pittsburgh Tribune

“It's a pretty neat trick to avert your eyes while you read, but The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston is so fresh, funny and original that I managed …The characters range from the slightly odd to the bizarre-doesn't-even-begin. You might feel ashamed of yourself for laughing, but I won't tell. Just take a bath afterward, and remember to scrub out the tub.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Hilarious, with the comedy getting darker and funnier as Web falls ever deeper into an intricate, overpowering mess that even he may not be able to clean up. Huston's characters are mostly loons, but his way with characterization and plot are so sure-handed and appealing, you'll find yourself desperately hoping they survive to live another day and star in a sequel, Clorox at the ready.”—Dallas Morning News

Marilyn Stasio
Huston isn't as noir as he probably wants to be. Web has a sentimental streak that would shame Dickens, and the miseries he's had to bear are absurdly overstated. But the outlandish characters—from Web's trippy parents to the noble soul who trusts him with a job—are brazen originals, and the dialogue is the roar of a death-defying talent.
—The New York Times Book Review
Patrick Anderson
Charlie Huston has for several years been one of the best-kept secrets in American fiction; this novel might move him into the mainstream. If you believe that the world is mad—a position that with each passing day becomes easier to accept—The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death will provide welcome support for your view. The novel had me laughing out loud many times, but of course, like all the best comic fiction (Catch-22 and Portnoy's Complaint come to mind), at bottom it is deadly serious. Life is violent, messy and all too short, and laughter is the best revenge.
—The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is [Huston's] almost entirely successful leap into crime fiction's mainstream. Despite frequent and literally splashy touches of the grotesque, it takes a tart, quick-witted, sharply funny trip, hijacked only by certain conventional plot touches and brushes with sentimentality. The vivid hilarity of Mr. Huston's hippies manque and stumblebum, Hollywood-obsessed tough guys is this book's hallmark.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Huston's darkly comic slice of Southern California noir is filled with distinctive characters that leap from the page and, thanks to Paul Michael Garcia's remarkable versatility, speak in equally arresting voices. Chief among them is Web Goodhue, the novel's narrator, a slacker forced by circumstance into temp work with a crew that mops up messy postmortem residue. Just as Huston makes the outwardly obnoxious and brutally snarky protagonist sympathetic, Garcia layers self-doubt, sensitivity and intelligence beneath the arrogance and an overriding humanity that Web attempts to mask with his misanthropic (often very funny) remarks. The other characters are equally well matched vocally: Web's father speaks with the boozy rasp of a self-loathing alcoholic; Po Sin, the massive boss of the Clean Team, has a deep and rumbling delivery; and femme fatale Solidad tries to hide her naïveté behind hard-boiled banter. Throw in a gallery of motor mouth crazies, flat-voiced killers and Web's amazingly tolerant best friend Chev, and you have a thrilling and smartly enacted audio package. A Ballantine hardcover (Reviews, Nov. 10). (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

This isn't a typical mystery-readers don't encounter a murder until p. 192-and the protagonist isn't a typical investigator, but then Huston's previous works featuring a vampire PI (Joe Pitt Casebooks series) and a slacker hit man (Hank Thompson) are also atypical. In Huston's second stand-alone work (after Shotgun Rule), Web Goodhue, a thirtyish Hollywood elementary school teacher traumatized by the violent death of a student, quits his job and retreats into an emotional shell. Helping an acquaintance clean up crime scenes gets Web involved with a young woman whose father died in a very messy suicide. She and her maniacal brother entangle Web in stolen almonds, human smuggling, murderous criminals, and her own kidnapping. Huston tells a wild and fanciful tale with gritty and witty skill, although the graphic language may be too strong for some patrons. For most public libraries.
—Roland Person

Kirkus Reviews
A troubled young man tries to redeem his life. Web Goodhue is running out of fans. His best friend Chev, who's fed and housed him uncomplainingly, finally gives him an ultimatum: Shape up or get lost. Perhaps it's the shock of an endangered friendship that catapults Web toward epiphany. He begins to understand that trauma, however real and painful, can't forever excuse parasitic behavior. So he gets a job, and an unlikely job it is. Webster Goodhue, former dedicated high-school teacher, is now a crime-scene cleaner-upper. As the newest member of Team Clean, his role is to scrub away the messy and invariably gore-drenched aftermath of violent death. Oddly enough, he finds the work satisfying-an encouraging sign that he's on his way to becoming "a kind of a grown-up." True, he encounters unimagined downsides, from severe beatings administered by rancorous rivals (crime-scene cleaning, it turns out, is a growth industry that's fiercely competitive) to a near-death experience at the hands of some no-goods convinced he stands between them and a cherished get-rich scam. As for the upsides, there's the lovely, sexy Soledad, who may have an unexpected downside as well. Violent and uncomfortably graphic at times, but the dialogue is sharp and funny, and Huston (The Shotgun Rule, 2007, etc.), as always, does it his way.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345501127
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/29/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 714,970
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Charlie Huston is the author of The Shotgun Rule, the Henry Thompson trilogy: Caught Stealing, Six Bad Things (an Edgar Award nominee), and A Dangerous Man, and the Joe Pitt novels: Already Dead, No Dominion, Half the Blood of Brooklyn, and Every Last Drop. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the actress Virginia Louise Smith.

www.pulpnoir.com

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Read an Excerpt

I’m not sure where one should expect to find the bereaved daughter of a wealthy Malibu suicide in need of a trauma cleaner long after midnight, but safe to say a trucker motel down the 405 industrial corridor in Carson was not on my list of likely locales.

—Ouch. That looks painful.

I touched the bandage on my forehead.

—And if that’s what it feels like to look at it, imagine how it feels to actually have it happen to you.

The half of her face that I could see in the chained gap at the edge of the door nodded.

—Yeah, I’d imagine that sucks.

Cars whipped past on the highway across the parking lot, taking full advantage of the few hours in any given Los Angeles county twenty-four hour period when you might get the needle on the high side of sixty. I watched a couple of them attempting to set a new land speed record. I looked back at Soledad’s face, bisected by the door.

—So?

—Uh huh?

I hefted the plastic carrier full of cleaning supplies I’d brought from the van.

—Someone called for maid service?

—Yeah. That was me.

—I know.

She fingered the slack in the door chain, set it swinging back and forth.

—I didn’t really think you’d come.

—Well, I like to surprise.

She stopped playing with the chain.

—Terrible habit. Don’t you know most people don’t like surprises?

I looked over at the highway and watched a couple more cars.

—Can I ask a silly question?

—Sure.

I looked back at her.

—What the fuck am I doing here?

She ran a hand through her hair, let it fall back over her forehead.

—You sure you want to do this, Web?

That being the kind of question that tips most people off to a fucked up situation, I could very easily have taken it as my cue to go downstairs, get back in the van and get the hell gone. But it’s not like I hadn’t already been clued to things being fucked up when she called in the middle of the night and asked me to come to a motel to clean a room. And there I was anyway. So who was I fooling?

Exactly no one.

—Just let me in and show me the problem.

—Think you can fix it, do you?

I shook my head.

—No, probably not. But it’s cold out here. And I came all this way. She showed me half her smile, the other half hidden behind the door.

—And you’re still clinging to some hope that a girl asking you to come clean something is some kind of booty call code, right?

I rubbed the top of my head. But I didn’t say anything. Not feeling like saying no and lying to her so early in our relationship. There would be time for that kind of thing later. There’s always time for lying.

She inhaled, let it out slow.

—OK.

The door closed. I heard the chain unhook. The door opened and I walked in, my feet crunching on something hard.

—This the asshole?

I looked at the young dude standing at the bathroom door with a meticulously crafted fauxhawk. I looked at bleached teeth and handcrafted tan. I looked at the bloodstains on his designer-distressed jeans and his artfully faded reproduction Rolling Stones concert T from a show that took place well before he was conceived. Then I looked at much larger bloodstains on the sheets of the queen-size bed and the flecks of blood spattered on the wall. I looked at the floor to see what I’d crushed underfoot, half expecting cockroaches, and found dozens of scattered almonds instead. I listened as the door closed behind me and locked. I watched as Soledad walked toward the bathroom and the dude snagged her by the hand before she could go in.

—I asked, Is this the asshole.

I pointed at myself.

—Honestly, in most circumstances, in any given room on any given day, I’d say, Yeah, I’m the asshole here. But in this particular scenario, and I know we just met and all, but in this room here?

I pointed at him.

—I’m more than willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that you’re the asshole.

He looked at Soledad.

—So, yeah, he’s the asshole then?

She twisted her hand free and went into the bathroom.

—He’s the guy I told you about.

She closed the door behind her.

He looked at me.

—Yeah, you’re the asshole alright.

I held up a hand.

—Hey, look, if you’re gonna insist, I can only accept the title. But seriously, don’t sell yourself short. You got the asshole thing locked up if you want it. He came down the room in a loose strut I imagine had been meticulously assembled from endless repeat viewings of Tom Cruise’s greatest hits.

—Yeah, I can tell by the way you’re talking. You’re the one fucked with her today. Made jokes about her dad killing himself. You’re the asshole alright. The toilet flushed, Soledad yelled over it.

—He didn’t make jokes!

The dude looked at the closed door.

—You said he made jokes.

He looked at me.

—Asshole. Fucking go in someone’s home, there’s been a tragedy, go in and try to make money off that. Fucking vulture. Fucking ghoul. Who does that, who comes up with that for a job? That your dream job, man? Cleaning up dead people? Other kids were hoping to grow up to be movie stars and you were having fantasies about scooping people’s guts off the floor?

I shifted, crushing a few more almonds.

—Truth is, mostly I had fantasies about doing your mom.

He slipped a lozenge of perforated steel from his back pocket, flicked his wrist and thumb in an elaborate show of coordination, and displayed the open butterfly knife resting on his palm.

—Say what, asshole?

Say nothing, actually. Except say that maybe he was right and I was the asshole in the room. Certainly being an asshole was how I came to be there in the first place.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 52 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 52 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 21, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    A twisting terrific tale of betrayal

    Web Goodhue burned out as an inner city elementary school teacher until he finally quit. Although still suffering from what the shrinks call post-traumatic stress disorder, the former Los Angeles teacher obtains work as a member of a crime scene cleanup team. He finds cleaning away the remains of dead people easier on his brain than teaching.<BR/><BR/>He and his crew clean up a particular nasty job in Malibu where the suicide splattered blood and guts are everywhere. Soon afterward, the dead man¿s daughter Soledad calls him to ask if he would like to make some under the table loot cleaning up a mess she and her hooligan half-brother need serendipitously performed by a professional. Web agrees although he knows better than to do an unauthorized side job, but Soledad¿s voice and later her beautiful body has the mentally fatigued man hypnotized with a need to live for the first time since teaching fatigued him to the breaking point. He will soon find himself wishing he stayed in the classroom as a burned out husk.<BR/><BR/>With a nod to crime scene cleaner writers like Wendy Roberts (see A Ghost Dusters), but more a darker Noir than most, Charlie Huston provides a twisting terrific tale of betrayal. Fascinatingly, the action is muted as the players discuss what they desire and what happened. This passive approach works as the reader increasingly anticipates doom; enhancing the Noir feel to the plot. THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH is a unique refreshing look at crime especially those who clean up the mess afterward while asking who cleans up the cleaner¿s mess.<BR/><BR/>Harriet Klausner

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 14, 2009

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    I Also Recommend:

    The modern love child of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett

    This is the 9th Huston novel I've read and it does not disappoint. His books are hard as nails, tough as old boots, and the constant violence makes you imagine being shelled on the streets of Lebanon in the 70s. Yet somehow all of his stories are incredibly bracing, romantic in their own way, and make you feel a little warm and fuzzy at the end. How does he do it?

    I figure he is the modern day love child of my favorite dead noir authors Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

    His heroes would steal a crutch from a cripple if necessary, like the Hammett's Continental Op in "The Big Knockover" yet sacrifice everything for a woman, as Chandler's Marlowe does over and over.

    Anyway, it's magic.

    So that's all I can say without going into a bunch of specifics and giving away the plot of The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 27, 2009

    train wreck

    this book was like a train wreck that i couldn't take my eyes off of. i loved the first person narrative and have already reccomended to friends and co-workers. it was very original.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 11, 2010

    A macabre delight

    Characters and schemes to rival Elmore Leonard (an almond heist!?) keep this novel fresh from beginning to end. HBO just passed on a series based on this book, but I hope we see a print follow-up someday soon.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2010

    Good plot, terrible writing

    I liked the story he but the writing style left nothing to be desire.

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  • Posted December 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Erasing All Signs Of Readability?

    My kudos to those who could finish this book. The writing style totally aggravated me. Really, why bother if the reader can't read it? I gave it three stars just because I didn't finish it- perhaps I missed the part where it got better.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 8, 2009

    STUD!

    Simply stated - - - one of the best books that I've ever read!!! Charlie Huston is an unrecognized literary genius. You must give this read some time, it does start out a little slow, but gains momentum all the way through.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2009

    total thumbs down

    I heard an hour of this book on CD. My 14 year old granddaughter wanted it. It is the filthiest book I have ever come in contact with. It went in the trash. My granddaughter and I had a good talk about it.

    I gave this book one star only to get to comment on it. It is below the star rating.

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Very Difficult Writing Style

    I enjoyed the first hundred pages or so of this book and then the writing style just got too unmanageable for me to enjoy the rest of the book. Web is a deadbeat roommate who is told by his roommate to get a job to pay him back for a broken phone. Web starts working for a "clean-up" service that cleans premises after someone dies at those premises. He works with an unsavory character named Gabe. It was pretty interesting at this point and we get to meet Web's mysterious father enters the scene with advice to read a good book starting with Anna Karenina. Then the book starts to lose it. A woman named Soledad who Web joked with while cleaning the remains of her father, calls him up and gets him involved in something shady. Also, his partner Gabe starts forcing Web to do illegal activities. This is the point where the plot got annoying and the writing style just got to me. It took immense concentration and the need to re-read sections to figure out who is talking and what is happening.

    The author uses a "hyphen" method to quote someone talking without letting you know who is talking and does not really differentiate narrative from character thoughts. This really made it quite difficult to give the book higher marks.

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  • Posted February 10, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A masterpiece

    With echos of "A Confederacy of Dunces", Charlie Huston populates this dark and thrilling novel with solid characters and dramatic flourishes. All in all an excellent novel that should win both high praise and awards.

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