Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Ethical Assassin by David Liss








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David Liss offers his first stab at contemporary fiction in his new novel, The Ethical Assassin. Following the success of three historical thrillers, Liss shows off his virtuosity in an entertaining and engaging, but often preachy novel. 17-year-old protagonist Lem Altick is selling encyclopedias door to door in rural Florida over the summer, trying to make money to pay college bills for his first year at Columbia. While making his pitch to a couple in their trailer, he witnesses their murder by the character to whom the title refers. The assassin preaches to Lem about the evils of eating meat, and the two become entwined in a complicated plot involving a captivating ensemble of characters. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 9, pp. 93-99:


“Come on,” Melford said once we made it safely past the cop, who didn’t hop in his car and come chasing after us. He didn’t even no­tice us. “What did you expect? They had to find the bodies sooner or later. You can’t be surprised.”

“I was hoping we could get the checkbook,” I said, my tone shrill and nearly hysterical.

“Right. The checkbook. Well, the check wasn’t written out to you, was it? It was written out to a company?”

“Educational Advantage Media. That’s who I work for.”

“Holy cow. You’ve got to love their shamelessness. So, how will they know you were the one providing the educational advantage?”

“I was the only one working that area. Plus my fingerprints are all over the trailer. If they sample everyone’s, they’ll come up with a match for me. Fuck,” I added. I pounded my knee with the palm of my hand.

“Doesn’t prove anything. So, you went there, you tried to sell them some books, it didn’t work out. You have no motive. If you just sit tight, you’ll be fine.” Melford placed a hand gently on my shoulder.

Great. Now the gay assassin is going to make a pass at me. “That isn’t my idea of a solution. Sitting tight and being acquitted.”

The hand, mercifully, went back to the steering wheel. “It won’t get past the grand jury.”

“Wow, that’s comforting. Next you’ll cheer me up by promising me a sentence of nothing more than time served. Just a few minutes ago, you were talking about how unfair it would be for me to even be arrested.”

“Okay, okay.” He held up a hand as if I were his nagging wife. “I’ll think of something.”

 Melford parked the car, and for the first time since we saw the police cruiser outside Karen and Bastard’s trailer, I examined my surroundings. We were outside a bar or something like a bar—a run-down-looking shack of a building with peeling white paint and a couple of dozen vehicles, mostly pickups, parked out front. The parking lot was an empty patch of land, pounded down by the weight of tires and drunks.

It wasn’t exactly like the music screeched to a halt when we walked in, but it might as well have. Men looked up from their beer. Men looked up from the pool table. The men at the bar craned their necks to look. No women that I could see. Not a single one.

Part of me wanted to believe that Melford knew exactly what he was doing, but the bar seemed to me a very bad idea. The braggadocio of David Allan Coe blasted from the jukebox and did a fair job of drowning out the sound of blood thumping in my ears. The sight of the cop had so terrified me that a cold pain had ripped across my body, as though some­one had stabbed me in the heart with an icicle.

The place was a longish room with a concrete floor and cinder-block walls with a “Miller Time” clock, a flashing Budweiser sign, and a giant poster of buxom Coors girls. There were no chairs, just picnic tables and benches, and in the far corner stood a large, old-fashioned jukebox—the kind with the rounded top. Closer to the surprisingly ornate wooden bar were four well-kept pool tables, all of them occupied. As far as I was con­cerned, it meant that there were, at any given moment, eight rednecks with weapons at the ready.

Melford led the way to the bar, where we took a seat while he waved over the bartender, a burly, ponytailed man who looked a hard-lived fifty—haggard, with multiple burns on his hands that suggested he’d been letting someone jab at him all night with a lit cigarette. Melford ordered two Rolling Rocks, which the bartender set down with a skeptical thud. I eyed the faded blue tattoos that crept up his forearm. He eyed my turquoise knit tie, which I wished I had remembered to take off. Behind us, pool balls cracked with sharp menace.

“Four dollars,” the bartender said. “You boys want something to eat be­fore the kitchen closes up? Got good burgers here, but Tommy, the cook, is about fifteen minutes away from being too drunk to man the grill.”

“Got that on a timer?” Melford asked.

“Just gotta watch the color of his face. We’re about fifteen minutes away now from him passing out or sitting in the corner and crying. We also take bets on which it’s going to be.”

“I’ll have to wait until I know Tommy better.”

“Fair enough, but the smart money tonight is on tears. So, you boys want burgers?”

Despite everything that happened, I realized I was hungry, a hollowed-out sort of hunger that left me feeling on the brink of organ failure. “I’ll have one,” I said. “Medium rare.”

“You want fries or onion rings?” he asked.

“Onion rings.”

“Just an order of onion rings,” Melford asked, picking at the label on his beer bottle.

“You got it. One burger with rings and one order of just rings.”

“No burger at all,” Melford corrected him. “I’m not having anything, and he’ll just have an order of onion rings. Better make it a double. He looks hungry.”

The bartender leaned forward. “How is it that you know what your friend wants more than he does?”

“How is it you know your cook’s going to be crying and not sleeping?”

The bartender tilted his head in a gesture of concession. “You got a point.”

Melford smiled. “Onion rings.” lie put a five on the bar. “Keep the change.”

The bartender gave him a half nod.

“I have to eat onion rings?” I asked. “Is that part of the secret code of ideology, too?”

“Sort of. You want to hang out with me, you have to give up eating meat.”

“I don’t want to hang out with you. I want you out of my life, and I want this day out of my life. Isn’t it enough of a punishment to hang out with you? I have to give up burgers, too?”

“I can understand how you feel,” Melford said. “I don’t take it person­ally. It’s been a big day for you.”

“Thanks for being so freaking understanding.” I looked away and took a breath to calm myself. I had to remember that just because Melford said Karen and Bastard had it coming didn’t mean they had. It might be best not to piss him off. So I changed the subject. “No meat? What, are you some kind of a vegetarian?”

“Yes, Lemuel, in observing that I don’t eat meat, you have correctly deduced I’m a vegetarian. And you know what? If you knew how animals were tortured, you’d give up eating meat on your own. But you don’t know, and you probably don’t care, so I’m forcing you to give up meat. We’ll backtrack later and you’ll learn why. For now, you can follow me and walk the ethical path.”

“I’m going to take ethics lessons from you?”

“Funny how that works.”

“I’ve never met a vegetarian before,” I said. “No wonder you’re so thin.”

“Are you my mother? Is my mother wearing a latex mask or some­thing? Holy crap, Lemuel. Just don’t eat anything that involves killing or exploiting any animals, and you’ll be okay. And I don’t want to hear about how I’m a fine one to talk. If we only ate evil animals who’d made bad eth­ical choices, then that would be good enough for me. I’d sooner eat those two in the trailer park than a hamburger.”

“You’re not doing a good job of convincing me that you’re not crazy.”

“Let’s talk about something more pleasant. Tell me about that charm­ing lady of yours. What was her name? Chanda?”

Chitra,” I said, in part feeling like an idiot for talking about this while such a horrible crisis was in the hopper and in part wanting to thank Melford for giving me the chance to talk about her.

“She gonna he your girlfriend?” he asked, not a hint of mockery in his voice.

I shrugged, vaguely embarrassed. “I’ve got some more pressing things to worry about at the moment. Besides, I hardly know her. I only met her last week.”

“You only met me today, and look how close we are.”

I chose to ignore that. “I don’t see how anything could happen. I’ve got to work all year to save money for college, and she goes to Mount Holyoke in a couple of months.”

“There’s always the long-distance relationship,” he pointed out. “I guess. It sounds like it would be hard to keep up, with all the dis­tractions and everything. But I suppose it’s less frightening when she’s going to a girls’ school.”

“Women’s college.”


He sipped at his beer. “It’s not a girls’ school. It’s a women’s college.”

“Who, if I may ask, cares?” I was in no mood for stupid nitpicking.

“I care. And you do, too. Words count, Lemuel, they have power and resonance. There will never be true equality without gender-sensitive lan­guage.”

It was at that moment that something hard smacked me in the back of the head. It came on suddenly, and it startled me more than it hurt. I turned around, and two men with pool cues stood there. Laughing.

They both wore faded jeans and T-shirts—one was tattered and black, the other was pale yellow and said BOB’S OYSTERS across the front. Under­neath there was a picture of an oyster with the words Shuck me coming out of its—I don’t know, mouth, oyster hole, or whatever they call it.

Against the tightening of my throat and the pounding of my heart, I felt a raging anguish building inside. The anguish of Why me? There were two of us sitting there. I, as far as I knew, looked like just an ordinary kid. I had a tie, sure, but so what? Melford, on the other hand, with his freaky, post-electrocution bleached hair, would surely be a better target. Instead, they went for me. They always went for me.

The silence lasted less than a couple of seconds. They stared. I looked away.

“You guys are kind of far from the pool table, aren’t you?” Melford said.

He’s going to kill them, I thought, numb now with powerlessness. There’s going to be more killing, right here. I’m going to have to watch more people die, a whole room full of them.

Bob’s Oysters grinned, showing a mouth full of nicely browning teeth. “Maybe so,” he said. “What you want to do about it?”

“Me?” Melford shrugged. “I don’t really want to do anything about it. What do you want to do about it?”

“What?” he asked.

“What?” Melford asked.

“What did you say?”

“What did you say?”

“I don’t know what in fuck you’re up to.”

“To be honest, I’m not up to anything.”

“I don’t like no faggots coming in here,” said the one in the black T-shirt.

“I think our foreign policy in El Salvador is misguided,” Melford said.

The black T-shirt guy knit his brow. “What the shit are you talking about?”

“I don’t know. I thought we were just saying, you know, stuff we think. Your comment seemed pretty random, so I figured I’d come up with one of my own.” He lifted his beer and drank down half the bottle, finishing it off with a mighty gulp. He wiggled it at them, documenting its emptiness. “You want another beer?”

“What’s it to you?”

“Nothing. I was just going to order up some beer, and since we’re hav­ing a conversation, it seemed polite to order one for you. You want it?”

The guy paused as his desire for beer clashed with his pointless anger. Maybe if Melford had seemed nervous or twitchy or afraid, it might have gone differently, but I was already beginning to understand the power of Melford’s calm.

 “Okay, sure,” said the black T-shirt guy. He blinked rapidly and bit his lip, as though he had misunderstood something and now didn’t want to admit it.

The two pool players exchanged glances. Bob’s Oysters shrugged. Melford signaled the bartender and ordered the beers. The pool play­ers took theirs, the black T-shirt nodded his thanks at Melford, and he and his friend wandered back over to the table. They were dazed, not looking at each other.

“What the hell,” I whispered into a basket of steaming onion rings, which had arrived during the confrontation. “I thought we were going to get our asses kicked.”

“I didn’t. See, that guy figured one of two responses—I’d fight him or I’d turn coward. All I did was take a different angle, and suddenly the threat of violence is gone. Nothing to it.”

He made it sound so simple. “Yeah. What happens if he decided to knock you off your stool and go upside your head with the pooi cue?”

Melford patted his pocket. “Then I’d have killed him.”

I let that hang in the air for a moment, unsure if the answer pleased or terrified me.

“Why didn’t you just kill them anyway?”

“I’m willing to defend myself, and I’m willing to fight for what’s right, but I’m not indiscriminate. All I wanted was to get out of the situation without you getting hurt, and I took care of it in the way I thought would cause the least harm.”

I stared at him, feeling not only relief and gratitude, but a strange sort of admiration. It was then that I first realized that, in the same way I liked it when Bobby praised me for books well sold, I liked Melford’s attention, too. I liked that Melford seemed to like me, wanted to spend time with me. Melford was somebody—a crazy, violent, and inexplicable somebody, but a somebody all the same and, as I’d just seen, an occasionally heroic somebody.

“What are we going to do about the checkbook?” I asked.

“We’re going to wait.”

“For what?”

“Well, you know where that mobile home is located? What the juris­diction is?”

I shook my head.

“The city of Meadowbrook Grove, a remarkably unpleasant little slice of land carved out of the county, that consists of a very large trailer park and a small farm with a hog lot. The cop you saw outside the trailer is the chief of police. Also the mayor—a monumental creep named Jim Doe. And he doesn’t much like the county cops. Chances are he’s going to hold off on calling the real cops until the morning. Otherwise he’ll have to be up all night. So we’re going to wait. We’re going to wait until it gets good and late, and then we’re going into the trailer, sliding under some yellow crime scene tape, and getting the checkbook.” He looked over at my bas­ket. “Can I have an onion ring?”



Readers will find it easy to compare Liss’ characters with those wacky individuals that Carl Hiaasen has captured in similar settings. One difference is that with Hiaasen, readers just laugh out loud at the antics. In The Ethical Assassin, there’s a drumbeat message about caring for all animals that makes the book both more and less enjoyable. For vegans, this is great stuff. Meat eaters beware.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2006 issue of Executive Times


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