When the body of famed true-crime writer Julian Wells is found in a boat drifting on a Montauk pond, the question is not how he died, but why? Philip Anders, Wells’s best friend and literary executor, vows to find out what drove the enigmatic author to take his own life.
The first clue is a map of Argentina that Wells had been examining on the day he died. Years ago, he and Anders made a fateful trip to Buenos Aires, where their tour guide was a woman named Marisol. Her subsequent disappearance during Argentina’s Dirty War haunted the author. Had he discovered some new clue to her fate? Was he planning to return to South America? And what, if anything, does Marisol’s disappearance have to do with the curious dedication in Wells’s first book: “For Philip, sole witness to my crime”?
Anders soon finds himself on a journey into his friend’s haunted, secret life. Spanning four decades and traversing three continents, The Crime of Julian Wells is a “spellbinding” tour-de-force from one of America’s most acclaimed suspense novelists (Publishers Weekly).
“[A] striking example of a suspense writer working at the top of his form, and an agreeable diversion for those who enjoy a bit of style with their substance . . . Cook’s characterizations are richly balanced and finely nuanced.” —Los Angeles Times
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There is no more haunting story than that of an unsolved crime, Julian had once written, but solutions, I was to discover, can be haunting, too.
To know the world, one must travel it in the third-class carriage, and I had little doubt that that was surely how Julian had come to know it. He was one of those for whom the usual comforts meant nothing. If the water was yellow, the walls laced with mold, if the sink was ringed in rust, or even if there was no sink at all, if the mosquito net was ripped and the cloaca full, it was the same to Julian. The deeds that drew him were the darkest that we know, and he'd pursued them with the urgency of a lover.
From his first trip abroad, I'd had little doubt that he would remain an expatriate all his life, which made it all the stranger that, in the end — that terrible, lonely end — he had died at home.
Now my thought, growing more insistent by the hour, was how I might have saved him.
"He was wizened," his sister, Loretta, said to me. "If you can say that about a man who was only in his fifties." She took a sip from her drink. "It's hard to imagine that he's gone."
We sat at a small square table in a quiet corner of what was still called an actors' bar, though now it catered mostly to Broadway tourists. I presumed that Loretta had chosen it because it returned her to the days when she'd struggled to be an actress, trudged that dreary path from audition to audition until rejection's blade had whittled away the last of that youthful hope. I'd seen her in two productions, both pretty far off Broadway. In the first, she'd played the object of desire in A View from the Bridge. In the second, the title role in Hedda Gabler. In both cases her talent had impressed me, especially the uneasy balance of pathos and simmering violence she'd brought to Hedda, which had also frightened me a little. She'd had every right to succeed on the stage, but hadn't. Watching her now, I decided that there was perhaps no ash quite so cold as the one left by an unrealized ambition, particularly an artistic one. But then, I thought, there is no such thing as a truly fulfilled ambition, is there? At twenty-three, Alexander the Great had bemoaned the fact that there were no more worlds for him to conquer. It seemed to me that we were all like poor thwarted Alexander, unsatisfied in one way or another. Some were dissatisfied with their choice of careers, others with their choice of mates, still others with their lack of money. My chief dissatisfactions were childlessness and widowhood, to which had now been added my failure to save my one true friend.
"Some people, when they die, bring more than themselves to an end," Loretta said. "The books I copyedit now are mostly happy talk. Tips on how to avoid thinking about the only things Julian ever thought about." She shook her head. "Half the time, I feel like a whore." Her smile carried the dogged effort of a lost cause. "Have you seen the new rewrite of The Great Gatsby for teen readers? It's sixty-seven pages long, and it seems that Fitzgerald intended the book to have a happy ending."
She was in her early fifties now, but her eyes were as sparkling as they'd ever been. In Egypt, Flaubert had encountered a woman whose exquisite beauty was marred only by that one bad incisor. I could find no such flaw in Loretta. She wore the beauty of her maturity as she had worn the beauty of her youth — easily, almost unconsciously, and with breathtaking grace. Time would do what time always does, but there would be no Botox in Loretta's future, no facelifts. She would move through the remaining seasons of her life as easily as she moved through the stages of a single day.
"Julian was an artist," Loretta said firmly.
An artist, yes, but with a curious obsession.
I thought of how he'd spent his last six years following the Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo's path through countless dismal towns, sleeping in the same railway stations, eating black bread and cheese, eyeing the vagabond children who had been Chikatilo's prey, becoming him, as Julian always seemed to do while writing about such villains.
"The last book really took it out of him," Loretta added. "But it wasn't just exhaustion."
"What was it?"
She thought a moment, then said, "He was like a man in a locked room, trying to get out."
Perhaps, but even so, Julian's mood hadn't troubled me, because I'd always thought that studying atrocities and detailing the outrages of serial killers would be a labor he would at some point seek to escape. Perhaps, at last, he was breaking free of all that, for there were times, such as when he described a sunset on the Atlas Mountains or a rainstorm in the Carpathians, when his love of the world cut through the darkness and he seemed, at least briefly, to soar above the grim nature of his subject matter. At such moments his spirits would lift, only to be dragged down again, as if by some invisible weight. Oh, what can you do, I had often thought, what can do you do with such a man?
"I had no inkling he might do what he did," Loretta said.
Nor had I, though only a week before, Julian had canceled a trip into the city. Two days after that, Loretta had called to say that he'd been unusually agitated. For that reason, she'd been surprised when she'd seen him calmly make his way toward the small pond that bordered the house, even more surprised that he'd climbed into the little boat the two of them had used as a child, and rowed away. A few minutes later she'd noticed the boat drifting toward shore with Julian leaning over the port side, his bare arms dangling in the water.
"I knew instantly that he was dead," Loretta said. "And that he'd done it to himself." She took another sip of wine. "But why?" The tone of her question was quite different from any I'd heard in her voice before. She gave off the air of a person going through someone else's old papers, looking not for deeds or insurance policies but for the small journal with its cracked leather binding and rusty latch — an item of no value whatsoever, save that it was there, written on some faded page, that the dreadful secret lay.
But had Julian actually had any such dreadful secret? I had no idea. We'd lived very different lives, after all: he, the expatriate writer; I, the stay-at-home literary critic, whose primary gift was in dissecting novels that, no matter how awful, were certainly beyond my own creative powers. He'd settled in Paris, if you could call the apartment in Pigalle that he rarely used his permanent residence. But even when I'd met him in Paris, or London, or Madrid, he'd had the air of a man briefly stranded in a railway station. For Julian, the road was home, and he'd trudged down some of the worst ones on earth, writing articles about plague and famine and holocaust in addition to his five books. And his writing had been exquisite. Like Orpheus, he had brought music into hell, and like him, he had died in a world that no longer wished to hear it.
"I sometimes think of him as a fictional character," Loretta said. "An immortal detective in pursuit of some equally immortal arch villain." Something in her eyes shattered. "But he will be forgotten, won't he?"
"Probably," I answered frankly.
"Each book was like a nail in his coffin," Loretta said. "Even that first one."
She meant The Tortures of Cuenca, Julian's study of a fabled injustice that had been committed in Spain, in 1911. He'd never really returned after that book, save for short periods, during which he would search for his next book or article. After Cuenca, the pattern was always the same. Go away. Write. Return. Go away. Write. Return. I could not recall just how many times he'd left the Montauk farmhouse he and Loretta had inherited, then come back to it out of nowhere and with no advance word, like a body washed up onshore.
"He was already planning the next one, you know," Loretta said. "In a way, that's what threw me off, because Julian was the same as always. Sitting in the sunroom, planning his next move."
"Planning it how?" I asked.
"By studying a map," Loretta answered. "That's how he always began working on his next piece, by studying a map of the country he was going to. Then he'd start reading books about the place."
As a result of that research, there'd always been considerable sweep to Julian's work, as his friendlier reviewers had sometimes pointed out. No crime floated freely. It was always part of a larger disorder, one fiber sprung from a hideous cloth. In a passage on Henri Landru, for example, he'd managed to connect the serial killer's murders in Paris to the nearby slaughter on the Somme, and this while writing a curious meditation on one of Gilles de Rais's blood-spattered minions.
"It was going the way it always had, the circle of Julian's life," Loretta said. "Then suddenly he was dead."
I felt an inner jolt, not only at Julian's death, but at my own inevitable demise and everyone else's, the wheel of time, that ceaselessly revolving door that ushers you out and brings the one behind you in, life itself, the killer we can't catch.
"I keep imagining myself in the boat with him," I said. "I'm completely silent, but I'm searching for what I could say to him that would change his mind."
"Do you find the words?" Loretta asked.
I shook my head. "No."
Loretta cocked her head slightly, the way she did when an idea hit her. "Do you suppose he had a wife somewhere? Or a lover? Someone we should notify?" The question took me off guard. I'd never considered such a thing.
"I would certainly doubt it," I answered, though it was conceivable that a rootless man might eventually have sunk secret roots.
"I always hoped that he had someone," Loretta said. "Some whore in Trieste, if nothing more. Just someone he was growing old with, someone who might comfort him."
"Then perhaps you should believe he did," I said.
Loretta's eyes flashed. "Is that what gets you through the night, Philip?" she asked. "Choosing to believe something, whether it's true or not?" "In one way or another, Loretta, isn't that what gets everyone through the night?" I asked.
"You don't think he ever fell in love?" Loretta asked.
"No, I don't think he ever fell in love," I answered, and again felt the pain of losing my wife three years before, a hole in my heart I could find no way to heal.
Loretta reached for her drink but only stared into it. "It was Argentina," she said, her tone quite thoughtful. "The map Julian was looking at the day he died. Maybe he was thinking about that trip the two of you made down there."
"That was thirty years ago, Loretta," I said. "Why would he have been thinking about that?"
She released a breath that was like a tired breeze, driven too far over rough terrain. "Like the winds from off the Karst," as Julian had once written in one of his college essays, "thirsting for the Adriatic." Such had been his style in the high days of his youth, his language predictably stilted, cluttered with allusions to places he'd never been. So different from what his work later became, those emaciated sentences, so darkly spare.
"A map of Argentina," Loretta said softly, almost to herself. "Do you think he was on the trail of something down there?"
"It's possible, I suppose."
But on the trail of what? I wondered, though there seemed no way to know in what direction Julian was heading when he decided to go to the pond instead.
"By the way," I said, "have you read the manuscript Julian brought back?"
"No," Loretta said as if my question had only drawn her deeper into Julian's mystery. "He cut out their eyes, you know, that Russian horror. And that's not all, of course."
"Yes, I know what Chikatilo did," I said with a wave of the hand.
Loretta's attention drifted toward the window. "We were in Rome, Julian and I. Just children. We were in that little piazza, the Campidoglio. He said it looked perfectly square because Michelangelo had designed it to look perfectly square by widening it here and elongating it there. It wasn't actually square at all. It was a masterful trick of perspective. 'It's distortion that creates perfection, Loretta,' he said."
She turned toward me and I saw a subtle shift in the mosaic of this woman, and with that shift I realized just how deeply Loretta had loved Julian, and that she always would. He'd been the older brother who had taken time with her, who had offered her his thoughts, his feelings, and then, for some reason she would never know, had chosen to remove himself for years on end, one of life's true vagabonds.
"Julian was good," she said softly. "That's what I'll miss. His goodness."
I felt a scuttling movement in the place where my youth lay like a discarded old traveling case, timeworn and battered, layered in gray dust. I glanced at my watch. "I'm sorry, but I have to look in on my father."
Loretta nodded. "How is he?"
For the first time in a long time, I felt an uneasy loosening in the grip I was careful to maintain upon myself.
"Fading," I said. I looked toward the window, where the rain had not let up. "Bad night." I rose, grabbed my coat, and drew it on. "Well, I'll see you at the service on Friday."
Loretta stared at her now-empty glass. "Do you think you knew him, Philip?" "Not enough to have saved him, evidently," I answered. "Which means I'll always be silent in that boat."
She looked up at me. "I guess we all leave a trail of little pebbles scattered on the forest floor," she said. "But I'll always wonder where those pebbles would have led to with Julian."
I had no answer to this question, nor ever expected to have one. She saw my retreat, and so offered her own admittedly inadequate one.
"Just to more pebbles, I suppose," she added with a small, sad smile.
I gathered up my coat. "I'm afraid so."
I expected this to be the end of it, but something behind Loretta's eyes darkened. "I'm silent in that boat, too, you know," she said.
The feeling I saw rise in her at that moment was striking in its subdued passion. She had worked at home for years and years, while nursing Colin through his long dying, and yet, for all that, something still sparkled in her, a fierce curiosity.
"And if I never find those words, I feel that I'll live a bit like poor Masha," she said. "Dressed in black, in mourning for my life."
They were dramatic words, of course, but the moment was dramatic, too, I thought, and in its aftermath, as I stepped outside and hailed a cab, it struck me that both for her and for me, what she'd said was true. A man we'd both loved had taken his own life. He had done so alone and had given neither of us a chance to stop him.
There are times when the very earth seems poised to move against us, and at that instant, I recalled Julian at Two Groves, playing croquet with my father, while Loretta and I looked on. He'd hit the ball with both verve and confidence, which had given his game a dead-on accuracy that even then I suspected he would later apply to whatever he chose to do. Upon his inevitable victory, he had leaped into a shimmering summer air that had seemed to embrace him.
How, from so bright a beginning, I wondered, had the world conspired to bring him to so black an end?CHAPTER 2
There are some bridges you cannot cross again, and so your only choice is simply to make the best of the shore you have chosen. And so, in the taxi, heading toward my father's apartment, I concentrated on my life's many satisfactions. The smaller ones, like good food, and the larger ones, like the years I'd had with my wife — comforts that Julian had not found in his youth and later chose not to seek.
For some reason, these thoughts brought to mind a passage from one of Julian's books, his description of Henri Landru. He'd written that the famous French serial killer had begun to talk as his date with the guillotine grew near, even going so far as to make a crude drawing of the kitchen where the bodies had been burned. Death's approach had turned him quite gossipy, Julian said, so that in the last days, Landru had been less the condemned man silently brooding on his crimes than a washerwoman chatting in the market square.
Not so Julian, I thought now, and instantly imagined him alone on the sunporch with his map of Argentina and God only knew what grim thoughts in his mind. Had he, in his last hours, inexplicably returned to the first tragedy that touched him? And if so, why?
There could be no answer to these questions, of course, so rather than pursue a fruitless trail, I drifted through the mundane details of Julian's early life.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Crime of Julian Wells"
Copyright © 2012 Thomas H. Cook.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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