three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-The Mystic ArtsCharlie Huston, the author of The Shotgun Rule, the Edgar-nominated Henry Thompson trilogy, and the Joe Pitt novels (including Already Dead, 3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2006), lives in Los Angeles.

The Story: Out of desperation, Webster Goodhue (Web), a luckless slacker and former Los Angeles elementary-school teacher, accepts part-time work from Po Sin and his Clean Team. But it’s no regular cleaning job—rather, this one requires mopping up the bloody, pulpy mess that remains at crime and trauma scenes. Already suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Web finds the job gross enough before he receives a call from a deceased Malibu man’s daughter, Soledad, to clean up remains from another gory death. Web soon finds himself involved with a beautiful woman, his estranged father, and situations with violent thugs, thieves, and a turf war—and way in over his head.
Ballantine. 319 pages. $25. ISBN: 034550111X

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"[The dialogue] gives the actual reading of the book a sort of caffeinated, jittery edge that perfectly fits the subject matter. … Huston’s characters are mostly loons, but his way with characterization and plot are so sure-handed and appealing, you’ll find yourself desperately hoping they survive to live another day and star in a sequel, Clorox at the ready." Joe Tipping

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is a crime novel, but except for the events that unfold in the first chapter, which go unexplained for quite a while, the reader would have no clue that things are about to turn ugly—or to be fair, uglier—until almost halfway through the novel. … Huston gradually pulls the reader in with a carefully revealed back story." Robin Vidimos

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Huston’s ideal readers are probably young, hip and enamored of the grotesque and surreal underbelly of American life, which of course is never more extreme than in Los Angeles. … The novel had me laughing out loud many times, but of course, like all the best comic fiction (Catch-22 and Portnoy’s Complaint come to mind), at bottom it is deadly serious. Life is violent, messy and all too short, and laughter is the best revenge." Patrick Anderson

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If you think this sounds gross, then, like me, you’ve never really brought yourself up to speed on the subject. … The real subjects here are grief and the quest for friendship and family." Richard Rayner

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite frequent and literally splashy touches of the grotesque, [the novel] takes a tart, quick-witted, sharply funny trip, hijacked only by certain conventional plot touches and brushes with sentimentality. … And if Mr. Huston’s strong suit is not reinventing these basic plot points, he more than compensates with scorchingly good dialogue and banner-worthy chapter headings." Janet Maslin

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite his cleverness in engineering a treacherous romance for Web, along with ‘some kind of dead-body-cleanup range war’ between the good-guy Clean Team and their thuggish rivals at a company called Aftershock, Huston isn’t as noir as he probably wants to be. Web has a sentimental streak that would shame Dickens, and the miseries he’s had to bear are absurdly overstated." Marilyn Stasio

Critical Summary

Mystic Arts—which critics agree just may push Charlie Huston into crime fiction’s mainstream—may not appeal to readers who cringe at violent, bloody scenes or profane language. Still, "if one tends to find humor in unlikely places," noted the Denver Post, "Huston has created a work that is sly, twisted and surprising—one well worth the investment of time." All critics praised the excellent characterization ("brazen originals") and sharp, witty dialogue (that of "a death-defying talent") (Washington Post). Some stock plotting dampened a couple of reviews, but critics took delight in Huston’s serious, if understated, themes about friendship, life, death.