The Crime of Julian Wells
Thomas H. Cook
Mysterious Press, 2012
Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it!
After finishing this book, the reader is left with an almost overwhelming desire to hit someone. The problem is that they will, quite probably, be unsure who. Because in The Crime of Julian Wells either the narrator is supposed to be a pretentious, boring twat or the author genuinely is a pretentious boring twat. The problem is that the only way to find the answer would be to read another book by the same author: which would require a streak of sadomasochism beyond most mortals.
The narrator, Philip Anders, is one of the most boring Everymen you’re ever likely to come across. But this doesn’t matter, as he had an exciting best friend, the eponymous Julian. At least, we’re told that they’re best friends: their relationship seems more akin to a man and a loyal puppy. Julian, supposedly a dark and troubled genius, commits suicide one day by slitting his wrists in a boat in the middle of the lake. [There are several logical flaws here. Slitting your wrists in water goes back to slitting your wrists in a hot bath, and this is because the heat, rather than the water, makes your blood flow more easily. There is very little reason to row your boat out into the middle of a pond unless you were particularly worried that someone was going to find you and rescue you. In Julian’s case, this begs two questions: 1) why bother with the boat at all if you lived a solitary life alone and 2) why then commit suicide on the one day you’re sharing a house with your sister and she sees you rowing away?] Why did he do it? Does his suicide have anything to do with the ‘crime’ he keeps mentioning to anyone that’ll listen? Does this ‘crime’ have anything to do with the lovely but mysterious
Parasol Marisol the friends met in Argentina? Do we care?
The mystery itself can best be summed up like this: some characters we don’t know and don’t care about meet the narrator and explain things relating to characters we never meet (and so don’t care about). This goes on for about seventy pages, until Our Protagonists – it’s stretching the point to call them heroes, as throughout the book they don’t actually do anything – finally end speaking to a former fascist general (despite being someone who spent their life professionally torturing people, he’s quite easily the most charming and appealing character in the novel) who tells them that Murder Mysteries Begin At Home. Well. That was pointful.
The novel appears to be trying to be an intellectual piece. We can tell this because every chapter contains a reference to a far better novel that is almost, but not quite, relevant to the situation the characters find themselves in.
‘In literature, the unopened envelope occupies a privileged place. Most famous, perhaps, is the one Angel does not find in Tess of the D’Ubervilles, and the lack of its discovery causes a deeper tragedy to unfold.’
It’s like being repeatedly battered over the head with an English Literature textbook. This reaches its height of page 188 of the UK edition where Loretta, Julian’s sister and the narrator’s love interest, reflects that she should have seen the warning signs of her brother’s depression. Fair enough; a very natural and human response. Indeed, we quite often miss obvious things until it’s too late. It is therefore extremely unfortunate that Loretta’s reminiscences go something like this:
‘You know, he said something quite disturbing a couple of days before he went out in the boat [to commit suicide]…Just as a matter of conversation, I said ‘So, how are you doing Julian?’ I expected him to answer the way he usually did, something like ‘I’m fine, Loretta, how are you?’ But instead he quoted that line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. You know, the one where he says, ‘A thousand slimy things lived on and so did I.’…. I should have known that he was in a very bad place.’
The poor man could have been balancing on the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge screaming ‘I have nothing to live for, I may as well just die!’ and this bright spark still wouldn’t have noticed. Just to add to her charm, Loretta also gets the worst luck with the endless pseudo-meaningful dialogue in the book, leading to lines like:
‘I guess we all leave a trail of little pebbles scattered on the forest floor,’ she said. ‘But I always wonder where those pebbles would have led to with Julian’.
Which is perhaps the most meaningless things ever put to paper. Julian, allegedly, is a genius. His particular talent is writing books that, apparently, cross the line between philosophy, history, religion and literary fiction: he writes life stories of serial killers. He claims that ‘the pain of others should not be made thrilling’: why he bothers to write about serial killers at all is therefore slightly unclear. But in showing Julian as brilliant, we stumble across another problem. You can, in a film, show a brilliant writer. You can, in a book, show a brilliant musician or artist. But you can’t tell us, in a book, that a character is a brilliant writer because we expect to see evidence. Cook makes the fatal mistake of showing us a sample of Julian’s ‘brilliant’ writing: suspiciously, it turns out to be very similar to the style of the rest of the book. His supposed ‘genius’, coupled with the general pretentiousness of the novel, leads to statements that are not only terribly written by also thunderingly, thunderingly obvious.
‘The guilt of whipping a great man would be terrible’
‘Or an innocent one,’ Julian said.
‘It all comes down to people in the end, Loretta. All the global policies and grand schemes. They all come down to what we do to people, whether we help them or harm them.’
The reader is left with the horrible, horrible suspicion that the novel would only be useful if you needed a lot of quotes very quickly for a very bad English Lit essay. And this pretty much sums up the problem: The Crime of Julian Wells wants to mean something. Which is seldom a problem with mystery writing, but a very great problem with modern fiction, and it’s then that you notice quite how familiar the plot is. In the hope that pointing out the narrative’s failings somehow negates them, the narrator at one point reflects that ‘this could not be the ending….as a literary route towards dark discoveries this one was way too familiar.’ He’s damn right about the second part because, in “modern classics” like The Secret History or The Sense of An Ending, we’ve seen all this before. The ‘tortured pretentious individual does Something Bad , which later turns out just to be pathetic and sordid, then commits suicide and the story is uncovered by his curious and mundane best-friend and hanger-on’ should by now be its own genre.
Which means that we’d be able to categorise everything within it, then burn the bloody lot of them.
Because it’s not just that The Crime of Julian Wells is bad. It’s bad because it thinks that every little thing that makes it so awful should make it great literature. Much in the same way that you don’t know if the narrator is meant to be so annoying or not, The Crime of Julian Wells could only be called a success if, reading it, Cook really did intend for the audience to be cast into a state of great depression and general ennui.