The Culprits

The Culprits

by Robert Hough


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307355652
Publisher: Random House of Canada, Limited
Publication date: 06/17/2008
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.26(w) x 8.03(h) x 0.87(d)

About the Author

Born in Toronto in 1963, Robert Hough knew he wanted to become a writer in high school. After graduating in 1985 from Queen’s University, where he wrote satirical articles for the arts paper, Hough worked briefly in advertising before becoming a journalist. For about a dozen years, he wrote for such magazines as Toronto Life and Saturday Night before turning to books.

Hough’s first book was originally intended to be a biography of Mabel Stark, a promiscuous and ribald 1920s lion tamer for Ringling Brothers Circus. Due to a general lack of documentation on Stark, Hough decided to write a novel instead. Published to rave reviews in 2001, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark was shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and the Trillium Book Award and was sold into the US, the UK and twelve other countries. It is currently in development for a major motion picture starring Kate Winslet in the role of Stark.

Hough’s second novel The Stowaway was also based on a true story, a fictionalized account of the Maersk Dubai incident, during which Romanian stowaways were found on board a Taiwanese freighter and thrown into the North Atlantic to die. One stowaway was protected by Filipino crewmen and survived. Hough conducted exhaustive research for the novel, locating and interviewing the Filipino crewmembers, as well as Romanian-Canadians who lived under the Ceausescu regime. The novel garnered critical praise and was published internationally. It was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Award, and was chosen by the Boston Globe as one of the top ten fiction books of 2004.

With The Culprits, Hough once again riffs on reality, this time taking for the novel’s backdrop the Chechen conflict and a terrorist bombing that took place during a rock concert at a Moscow airbase in 2003. While researching the book, Hough stayed with a Russian family for a week in Saint Petersburg. “I had this really great guide named Tania Smirnova,” he recalls. “She was just nineteen, and she took me out to the bleak, god-forsaken suburbs that ring the city. It was worse than I could have imagined, and I have a dark imagination: communal apartments, drunken neighbours, graffiti-coated walls, broken down elevators, shot-out lights, general air of threatening despondency. It was late October, and the weather was freezing rain the whole time. It was a great trip.”

Hough lives in Toronto with his wife and two daughters.

Read an Excerpt


Ahhhh, little one; ahhhhhh, my soon-to-be last-name sharer; ahhhhhhhhhh, the future pride and joy of Hank and mamochka. There’s one thing I must tell you. Life is a deception. Oh yes–it’s a ruse, it’s a scam, it’s a carnival shell game. When you peel back one layer of trickery, you’ll find another and another, each one mossy and dark and underfoot-hidden. The good news is that these layers are there for our protection. If we could scrub away the lichen and peer at life with clear vision . . . well. Its entirety would overwhelm us. It would assault all our senses, like a subway-car bombing. It would come at us roaring, rendering us madmen. And so, we deceive ourselves and all others, if only to keep a grip on this thing we call sanity.

(And with time, little one, we don’t even know when we’re lying.)

But I digress. I am overly dramatic. It’s my half-Slavic soul, drunk with attention. I’m a cranially enlarged Russian, with a soapbox to stand on. I apologize, I do; I’ll sober up, and quit harping, and get on with this blather.

This, by the way, is the tale of Tushino and the bombs that went off there. To understand that day–to appreciate, in even the smallest of ways, the deaths that occurred there–you have to know one other small thing. None of this would have happened had a delusional stranger not shoved Hank Wallins, my six-foot-and-five-inch-tall stepfather, in front of a charging subway train.

This happened on May the fifth in the year 2002. Hank, then as now, worked the night shift for Quality Assurance, the country’s second-largest provider of home and car policies. On a typical evening, he’d be given no more than an hour or two’s worth of computer processing (issuing batch reports, distributing funds, testing systems), which he’d then have to drizzle over eight fluorescent-lit hours. “Boredom,” his predecessor had warned, “will be a real bitch to deal with . . .” This, it had turned out, was an understatement: someone had to be there at night in case the computers stopped working, an event preceded, apparently, by a sound midway between a belch and an air leak. As this never happened (or at least never while Hank was on duty) time flowed like sludge through a gummed-up egg timer. Some nights he thought it would go on forever: the reading of newspapers, the drinking of coffee, the phantomlike strolling of dim and hushed hallways. Often, Hank felt more like a security guard than a computer operator, an impression in no way tempered when the actual guard, a type 1 diabetic, one night turned pale and started uncontrollably spasming. It took eleven yawning weeks before a replacement was hired.

But humans, they cope. It is what they’re known for. So picture him, little one, each night of each workday, my red-haired semi-papa, chewing his sandwich as slowly as possible. Or tapping his pencil on his workstation desktop. Or rubbing his ears to soothe the tinnitus that plagued him. Or sighing heavily, and slowly, as though sadness was a thing he carried in his lungs. Oh yes, picture him–thirty-six years of age, a one-time sailor and now from-life hider, the airy whir of computers soothing the sounds in his eardrums.

Plus, there was smoking. It was something he could do with Manuel, who manned the freight train—sized printer in the room just one over. Every hour on the hour, they’d both go outside, where Manuel would chatter about thoroughbreds, and chinchillas, and other hare-brained schemes for getting rich quickly. They’d hear crickets, and transformers, and the whine of car tires against black, distant asphalt. At dawn, they’d watch the parkway bathe in the light of the low sun. And always, always, there were twin coils of blue smoke, one spiralling upward from sausage-like fingers, the other from a hand that was thin and bronze-coloured.

But I digress, once again. As I may have said earlier, it was the end of Hank’s evening. He rose, wearily, reached into his desk drawer, and pulled out a pair of portable sound maskers; they looked like oversized lima beans, and they clipped to his ears with two curls of clear plastic. He turned on the volume, his ears now awash in the sound of air rushing–of all frequencies holding hands and making a warm, restful shhhhhhing. This would help. Outside, in the real world, his maskers dampened the pings and the whistles that sang inside his ears.

Thusly accoutred, he rode three storeys up to the Quality front lobby. He revolved through glass doors and stepped into hot, glinting white sun–it reflected off windshields, and hubcaps, and the building’s brass facade. Hank winced, and checked his pockets for sunglasses; he found only keys, and coins, and a wallet so flimsy with use it felt almost weightless. He swore softly, and then trudged to the stop where his bus waited for him.

On board he squeezed. The smell was weighty and pungent, like the odour given off by a poorly kept barnyard. He sighed and gripped a pole. Whenever he adjusted his stance–a bend in the road, an unexpected braking–he left behind a residue that mapped his palm’s lines and creases. Thirty minutes later, the bus pulled into the station. Hank de-boarded, and was immediately ingested by a march of commuters. This happened each morning: the stamping of feet against floors damp with water, the muffling of sound as they entered the station, the depositing of Hank at the edge of the platform. Here, he liked to lean forward and let tunnelling air flow over his hot face; as he did, he imagined what it would be like to dive forward, hands up and palms touching, the whole of his life before his eyes flashing. This possibility filled him with a warm, morbid comfort–it made him feel as though life was not a thing without options, and that if his ears and his mood ever got the better of him . . . well. He could always end it all with a quick alley-ooping. In fact, he was so busy imagining the moment of impact (apparently the smaller bones pulverize, and turn to a finely ground rock salt) he failed to notice the person skulking behind him.

Little one: he was wearing a fully zipped parka, a pair of worn tartan slippers, and a sort of Robin Hood cap made from aluminum foil. His pinprick-sized pupils blazed with divine inspiration, and he smelled, appropriately enough, as though he did the lion’s share of his urinating in grimy back alleys. Oblivious, Hank embarked on an unwise course of action: he grew a pair of crimson horns, a tail that curled whip-like into a threatening trident, and a look of fulminating evil in his large, plaintive green eyes. This inflamed the man lurking behind him; he made the sign of the cross, gazed upward to heaven, and then pitched himself forward like a steroidal rhino.

Hank toppled, eyes wide and arms circling, his sound maskers propelled from each of his pink ears. Then, for the briefest of seconds, he hovered. His body turned veil-like, and his oversized sneakers turned lighter than chiffon. And though this wasn’t noticed by those still on the platform, it nonetheless happened: his spirit turned weightless, and wafted like a leaf caught in an updraft. It was during these moments of floating that Hank was struck dumb by truths profound and eternal. It really was something: his soul flooded with joy, and his expression–normally so sober and burdened–gleamed like a child’s on Christmas Day morning. Nothing, he now understood, was as precious a feeling as your heart beating calmly, or filling your lungs with air from a forest, or listening to the songs that come during daydreams. Nothing, he now saw, was worth more than life and the gesture of living.

At which point he dropped.

Oh yes–plank-like he fell, his ear pingings replaced with screams and shouts and the loud screeching wail of metal on metal. He took the blow on his belly, which thank God had grown prodigious since his days as a seaman. His forehead landed inches from the electrified third rail. Little brown mice scattered everywhere squeaking. Then, for a moment, he lay nose-pressed and sooty. Above him, people were screaming and pointing and feverishly shouting; amidst this confusion, his assailant slipped away, triumphantly muttering. Hank lay still for a moment. Even though every bone in his body was aching, and a rivulet of blood flowed from a gash near his hairline, and his nostrils twitched at the stench of roasting brake fluid, he wasn’t worried. He would survive, he just knew it, and it was this prescience that fired his underused muscles.

With the train ten Hank-lengths away and still grinding forward, he leapt to his feet and faced the platform determined. To his right, the train driver horn-beeped and arm-waved and generally looked frantic. In front, a dozen pairs of hands reached out toward him. They were pale, dark, olive-toned, hairless, ring-wearing, male, female, large, small . . . one was even missing a portion of baby finger, such that it looked more than a little like a wiener. With the train at five Hank-lengths, he took a long stride toward the wall of the platform. The very prospect of living–of having more life!–caused him to do something he did only rarely: Hank smiled, and smiled widely. This was unfortunate. The blood chugging from his hairline gelled in the space between his front teeth, granting him the look of an unbridled savage. The crowd gasped and stepped reflexively backward. Only two pairs of hands still reached toward him–one was pale and sinewy, the other light brown and wearing a gold ring.

Hank took hold. His hands and wrists were squeezed duly. With the train sliding forward on rails hot and sparking, the two remaining stalwarts gave a galley-slave heave-ho. Hank gained a foot on the platform, and then straightened his legs so mightily that he almost pulled his rescuers onto the tracks with him. Fortunately, they were being held around the waist by the people behind them, who were in turn being grabbed by those in the third row.

This extra bit of thrust saved Hank’s life. Yet, as his right leg straightened, his left compensated by making a quick backward high kick at the moment in which the train was upon him. The crunch of small bones was lost to shouting, and screams, and the cacophonous grind of a train slowly stopping. Hank stood still, cupping hands over both ears. The air thickened and turned roux-like, and the whole of the world drooped like a painting by Dali. No one spoke. The only sounds Hank heard were the ones that his head made. In this ping-laden silence, he felt saddened all over–now that he’d survived, a new burden was upon him.

A second later he groaned, having shifted his weight to a foot in three places broken.

And so, Hank collapsed, his arms out beside him, his left foot pointed in a direction no foot should ever have to point to–it felt as though someone had heated oil in a saucepan and then upended it over the ball of his ankle. Still. Did Hank moan? Did he bellow, or howl, or claw at his face while screaming for mercy? Oh no. Now that his sipping at the grail of ecstasy was over, he reverted to the Hank who hated being the centre of attention. He swore through gritted teeth, and shut his eyes tightly, and cursed whichever bitch’s son had just tried to kill him.

He now wanted one thing and one thing only: to go home to his chair, and his paper, and his Marsona DS-600 white noise generator. He opened his eyes. Turning his head to one side, he gazed at shoes and boots and open-toed sandals. When he attempted to rise, pain whistled through him. Hank shrieked, and fell back, and held himself shivering. The crowd surged forward. He was buried beneath jackets and sweaters, beneath blazers and sweatshirts, beneath a thick toddler’s blanket and a Judaic prayer shawl and a Navajo serape that smelled faintly of wormwood; in addition to being spasmodic with pain, he now felt as hot as an incubated baby. An Evian bottle, descending from above, was placed to his mouth and gingerly tilted.

This felt good. He licked moisture from his lips and quietly whimpered. An old woman with a shopping buggy struggled to the front of those gathered. She lowered herself to her knees, her chin trembling with a slight, yet noticeable, palsy. Her breath was a steaming of garlic, cooked meat, and dill-infused mushrooms. “Is okay,” she told Hank. “Is little fall, you have. Is nothing to worry about. The doctors they coming. This, I know already . . .” She stroked his forehead with a hand cool and yeasty. “Is okay,” she kept saying, “don’t you to worry.”

Hank closed his eyes. His rib cage felt tightened, as though it were trying to choke him. He heard a garbled announcement, and the sound of footfalls coming toward him. The crowd made way for two paramedics. The old woman was suddenly rendered a figment; only her fragrance remained, gradually dwindling. Hank looked all around him, and then lay as still as was humanly possible. The younger of the paramedics, his hair tips as frosted as a child’s breakfast cereal, dropped and placed three fingers against Hank’s carotid artery.

Through chattering teeth, Hank croaked his name, identified the prime minister, and counted the trio of fingers rotating before him. When the paramedics eased him onto a white, cushioned stretcher, Hank’s foot–which was largely unrestrained by ligament or muscle–from side to side flopped like a koi out of water. He gasped, and everything went blurry; it was as though he were viewing the world through a smearing of ointment. His heart quaked and trembled, his body warmth tumbled, and he felt as though death was finally coming. Meanwhile, the older of the paramedics (moustache, eyeglasses, the out-of-date haircut of a grown man with children) was cradling Hank’s ankle while asking, “Sir . . . sir . . . can you stand this?”

There was a syringe in his hand, its tip pointing upward and bubbling with morphine.

Reading Group Guide

1. The word “culprit” not only appears in the title, but it also peppers the narrative of this book. How does the narrator use the word? What do you feel is his attitude towards it? Whom or what do you see as the true culprits in this story?

2. Discuss the opening paragraph of the book in which the narrator describes life as a lie that protects the human brain from reality. What do you think of this idea? Who in this novel has the ability to really see reality? How are they affected?

3. Anna develops her addiction to shoplifting as an antidote to the sensation she has of “disappearing.” Why do you think she feels this way? Why does she find comfort in petty thievery?

4. Despicable acts are committed in this book, sometimes by people who are difficult to despise. What makes these individuals perform their terrible acts? Discuss the tensions between good and evil in this novel.

5. Our narrator is horribly disfigured and otherworldly, a sort of mooncalf. He describes the moment of his conception in ghastly terms. What made him the way he is? Is he really so horrible?

6. Discuss the peculiar omniscience, and other traits, of this very unusual narrator. How did this narrator affect your experience of the book? Could it have been told any other way?

7. Discuss Hank’s tinnitus. Do you see a pattern in its coming and going, in its frequencies and characteristics? What do you think is its true origin?

8. Discuss the many descriptions of scents in this book. Anna describes “scent memories” as being the strongest triggers for longings for Russia and Ruslan. What are some of your most powerful “scent memories”?

9. Discuss the love affair between Anna and Hank. Upon what is it founded? Will it last?

10. Like Hough’s other novels, this book is based on a story that was “ripped-from-the-headlines”–in this case the Tushino suicide bombing. Did this factual backdrop affect the way you experienced this novel?

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The Culprits 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
vivaval on LibraryThing 24 days ago
This book is awesome. The subject matter is complex and far-reaching, the characters are compelling and well-developed, the language is precise and beautiful, and the story grabs you from the first page and doesn't let you go. What more can you ask for?More people need to read this book.