The Ethical Assassin
© 2006 David Liss
Lem’s just a kid selling encyclopedias so he can go to college, that’s all. He never meant to get involved in a criminal conspiracy, but circumstances spiraled out of his control. He went into a trailer to sell books to two suspicious rednecks, and then — bang, bang — he’s witness to a double homicide and utterly confused when the assassin apologizes to him. The killer — Melford Kean — is an altogether pleasant fellow, once you get past the assassination bit, but he’s got a job to do, evil to fight, and now Lem has become his unwitting ally. Lem would like nothing more than to close his eyes and walk away, but circumstances continue to force him to rely upon this bizaarely compelling stranger. Thus, for a ltitle while at least, both Lem and Melford are destined to walk the same path.
So begins one of the most fascinating novels I’ve ever read. The criminal conspiracy itself is rather tame — involving encyclopedias, drug labs, and hog farms — but Melford makes for an irresistible story. Who is this affable stranger who shoots people and then treats people enveloped his actions with such kind regard? Why did he shoot two seemingly harmless rednecks? As the story progresses, Melford emerges as a highly principled and motivated man who is interested in swaying Lem to his point of view — engaging with him in conversations about ideology, the influence of culture, and the basis of ethics. As Melford and Lem’s mutual problem reaches crisis levels, the method behind Melford’s madness becomes increasingly clear to both Lem and — I assume the author hopes as much — the reader. While I don’t know enough about the author’s beliefs to speculate on his intent with The Ethical Assassin, it reads in parts like an author tract. I delighted in the way Melford constantly teases Lem, engaging with him and drawing out a discussion. While I don’t agree with Melford ultimately, the unfolding of his arguments complemented the story’s pace smartly.
With intriguing characters, philosophical ideas to grapple with, and the kind of quirky humor I like in a novel, I’d say The Ethical Assassin is a solid hit. While I chose to avoid mentioning Melford’s cause in the review (possibly a spoiler), it’s strongly hinted at early on so I will link to two subjects of discussion. Your choice in hovering over them.