Thrillers achieve liftoff in different ways. Some rely on high-concept plot twists -- two strangers agree to swap murders, say, or one woman assumes the identity of another woman killed on a train. Others, more conventionally, begin with the investigation of a crime or the plotting of one.
Charlie Huston's "The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death" takes its cue for mayhem from the discovery of a weird job. The hero, Webster Fillmore Goodhue, better known as Web, is a sad-sack slacker, a former teacher, hanging out on the couch at his friend's tattoo parlor when he gets railroaded into some part-time work for another buddy, Po Sin, who has a small business called Clean Team. Po Sin and his crew clean up at crime scenes and trauma scenes after the dead bodies have been taken away but the mess remains. They deal with the stains, the spatter on the walls, the fluids. They swab the floors and rugs.
If you think this sounds gross, then, like me, you've never really brought yourself up to speed on the subject. "The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death" addresses this flaw in our education. "The roaches swarmed me," Web notes. "So I freaked a little. A couple of hundred cockroaches come spilling out of the . . . nooks and crannies of a dead shut-in's festering den and start racing each other up your legs to see which can be the first to crawl into your facial orifices and see if you don't freak."
Out of this conceit -- it's yucky work, but, hey, somebody's got to do it -- Huston conjures a unique milieu and then sets two parallel plots running. In one, Web falls for Soledad, the inevitably beautiful daughter of a rich Malibu suicide. They hook up while Web is sponging at brain matter: Soledad's father fired the gun while his mouth was filled with water -- a method of self-slaughter that guarantees maximum need for interior redecoration. "I took the spray bottle from the tool belt," Web writes with relish, "and sprayed some hydrogen peroxide, and specks of blood and brain I'd missed on the counter foamed white." Later, Soledad calls Web and invites him down to a cheesy South Bay motel for further cleanup work, and Web is soon up to his ears in a scam involving Soledad's flaky and violent half-brother, a pair of cowboy thieves (they too have a penchant for ultra-violence) and a container-size load of stolen almonds: This part of the plot spins deliriously around snacks.
In the other strand, a turf war erupts between Clean Time and a rival business. There's competition for this work, and Web finds himself wondering at the swiftness of his journey from tattoo-parlor couch "to the moment when a stoic ex-gangster corpse fetcher was asking me to take possession of his jumbo Molotov cocktail."
Web, smart yet prone to errors and often getting smacked, mistakes the meaning of events, thinking that certain developments concern one part of the action, while really they're about the other. Chaos is guaranteed, and a deadly standoff.
That's the gist of the story. (P.D. James, it isn't.)
Oddly, given the willfully grisly subject matter and the rocket-like propulsive quality of Huston's short sentences (a paragraph with more than five lines in it comes to seem almost Proustian), this is a book with something tender and almost mushy at its core. The real subjects here are grief and the quest for friendship and family. In the beginning, Web is estranged from both his mother and his father, and he's trying hard to alienate the last of his friends. He's pretty much an open wound. He cracks wise to defend the hurt he feels. Scrubbing at spots of blood that have soaked into grout acts as a weird form of therapy: "Things back as they had been. Better than they had been. Like nothing had ever gone wrong."
The feel-good ending, in which the plot ends are tied together and the promise of recovery is handed out left and right, perhaps goes too far -- but Huston isn't trying to be Jim Thompson here, he's willfully balancing his slacker noir with sentiment, and the effect works.
The formidable Po Sin, for instance, at one point has to cry off a planned tit-for-tat in the business war because his wife "has her yoga class tonight. I need to watch the kids." It's funny and moving because we're then shown what Po Sin faces at home -- a mentally disordered son who needs and gets a lot of attention and a daughter who is consequently very angry. Huston does more than merely glance at this material -- a detour is taken, and these minor characters come to life. Hence the power.
The dialogue is terrific. Most of it is unquotable in a family newspaper, although occasionally Huston shows us he can do Noel Coward as well as Quentin Tarantino. "I could use some more money," Web tells his father, a once-successful novelist and screenwriter, now a drunk. "Yes, I saw that you are wearing a towel in lieu of actual pants," Web's father replies. "One suspects you might need the odd dollar or two."
The "in lieu" and "actual" are great there, and Huston is excellent too on Los Angeles. He doesn't so much evoke the city as allow a sense of it to sink into his prose like blood into a carpet. "North of the Canyon, I hop on the Ventura going east and jump off in Burbank and drive to the far end of Flower and park in front of a long low house with a waist-high stucco wall closing off a yard that's half lawn and half patio."
Huston has written comic books and two hard-boiled series that have been compared to James Ellroy. His most recent novel, "The Shotgun Rule," is a dark, coming-of-age story set in the early 1980s.
Yet another territory has been mapped out in "The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death," one that this reader, at least, would like to visit again. Cleaning up blood and broken body bits becomes the subject for restorative comedy -- who knew?