The Crime of Julian Wells

The mystery at the heart of Thomas H. Cook’s new novel, The Crime of Julian Wells, emerges like the image on a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces the author dispenses, one by one, until the pattern emerges, complete and inevitable. In this elegant thriller, there are no sudden moves. Action is born of stillness and reflection while the crimes of the past, reluctantly exposed, bleed gradually but inexorably into the present.

“When the best man you’d ever known, the one you’d loved the most…trudges to a pond, climbs into a boat, rows a hundred feet out into the water, rolls up his sleeves, and cuts his wrists, are you not called upon to ask what you might have said to him in that boat, how you might have saved him?”  

The dead man is Julian Wells, an American who wrote about the crimes of various mass murderers, recent and historic, from the viewpoint of their victims. The narrator is Philip Anders, a solitary academic, who is determined to find out why his lifelong friend committed suicide and now wonders what Julian meant when he dedicated his first book to “Philip, sole witness to my crime.” Compelled to excavate Julian’s past, Philip is drawn back to the time the two men spent together in Argentina toward the end of that country’s Dirty War. Given the destination, it seems inevitable that a novel whose languid tone first echoes that of Brideshead Revisited (Julian and Philip being golden boys of a privileged class) will finally become an Argentine Heart of Darkness. The course toward horror is indeed set, and Cook, a nimble writer who can be lyrical one moment and brutal the next, navigates that course brilliantly.

Philip’s chief confidant is his elderly father, an ex-State Department bureaucrat who advised and inspired Julian. Like his deceased acolyte, the old man seems haunted. He is also evasive when gently interrogated about Julian’s motivations, pronouncing, “Darkness was the only thing he knew.” Philip rejects this conclusion, but as he retraces Julian’s steps in Europe, Russia, and Argentina he enters “a thicket of intrigue in which identities changed as well as motives.” At its center is Marisol, the woman who was Julian and Philip’s tour guide in Buenos Aires; the woman whose subsequent disappearance became Julian’s — and is now Philip’s — obsession.

Marisol was the personification of innocence. But Julian, on the day he died, told his sister that in the jungles of Argentina he had learned that “Goodness is evil’s best disguise,” and soon Philip is forced to question the solidity both of his political assumptions and of his lifelong affections. “Grow up, please,” a retired U.S. intelligence officer tells him, and middle-aged Philip eventually does. Forced to confront barbarism, face to face, in the jungle, he returns home to a shabby truth: “It’s always the little people, too small for us to see, the little, dusty people, who pay for our mistakes.”