Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Even Bad Guys Have a Code

The Ethical Assassin

by David Liss

Published by Ballantine Books

4 Out of 5 Stars

Set in the 1980's, Lem Altick has just graduated high school and desires nothing more than to escape the cultural vaccum that is Florida by going to college at Columbia. That Lem is actually a nice guy is pretty surprising given the hand that life has dealt him so far: a deadbeat dad who stopped calling ages ago, a mother so zoned out on pills that she naps all day and only awakens to prepare meals and clean house, and a verbally abusive step-father who has reneged on his promise to help Lem pay for an Ivy league college. Desperate to make money quickly so he can pay his tuition, Lem becomes a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. If he can just get through this summer, then he might be able to escape his dead end life. But life isn't finished screwing with him yet, not by a longshot.

Lem's carefully constructed plan for his future begins to fall apart when an assassin walks into the trailer where Lem is about to close his last encyclopedia sale for the day. Lem watches in horror as the trailer's occupants, Karen and the aptly nicknamed Bastard, are shot in the head. Now a witness to a murder for which he may be blamed, Lem finds himself mixed up in a tangled criminal web that includes an on-the-wagon pedophile, a rapist town cop, a bikini-clad Siamese twin, and an assassin who is, of all things, ethical and the only person Lem can trust. As Lem and the assassin navigate this world of drugs and animal cruelty, Lem learns more about who he is and what he's capable of than most people learn in a lifetime.

This is messed up stuff and Liss is definitely treading on ground traditionally covered by Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard, so it's no surprise that I enjoyed it. There's a dark comic streak throughout the novel and several witty one-liners (and not so witty; I readily admit that my favorite line may have been "It smelled like the shit that shit shits out its asshole"--sophistication is never an adjective to which I've laid claim). In the beginning of the novel, it's a bit confusing as it changes from Lem's 1st person point of view and moves to a 3rd person examination of some of the other key players, but if you let yourself give into it you'll find that Liss is giving background about characters who will be prominent later. He wraps everything up and doesn't leave a loaded gun in the corner unless someone's going to blow someone else's ass off with it. And that's really all I expect from an author.

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