The New York Times Book Review
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Deathby Charlie Huston
"The fact is, whether it's a dog hit by a train or an old lady who had a heart attack on the can, someone has to clean up the nasty mess. And that someone is Webster Fillmore Goodhue, who just may be the least likely person in Los Angeles County to hold down such a gig. With his teaching career derailed by tragedy, Web hasn't done much for the last year except some… See more details below
"The fact is, whether it's a dog hit by a train or an old lady who had a heart attack on the can, someone has to clean up the nasty mess. And that someone is Webster Fillmore Goodhue, who just may be the least likely person in Los Angeles County to hold down such a gig. With his teaching career derailed by tragedy, Web hasn't done much for the last year except some heavy slacking. But when his only friend in the world lets him know that his freeloading days are over, and he tires of taking cash from his spaced-out mom and refuses to take any more from his embittered father, Web joins Clean Team - and 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. Her brother's in need of somebody who can clean up a mess. Every cell in Web's brain tells him to turn her down, but something else makes him hit the Harbor Freeway at midnight to help her however he can. Is it her laugh? Her desperate tone of voice? The chance that this might be history's strangest booty call? Whatever it is, 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.
The New York Times Book Review
The Washington Post
The New York Times
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.
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.
“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
- Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death
By Charlie Huston
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
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.
I hefted the plastic carrier full of cleaning supplies I’d brought from the van.
—Someone called for maid service?
—Yeah. That was me.
She fingered the slack in the door chain, set it swinging back and forth.
—I didn’t really think you’dcome.
—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?
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.
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.
Excerpted from The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston Copyright © 2009 by Charlie Huston. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I liked the story he but the writing style left nothing to be desire.