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The Ethical Assassin (2007)

The Ethical Assassin (2007)
3.5 of 5 Votes: 5
0812974549 (ISBN13: 9780812974546)
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The Ethical Assassin (2007)
The Ethical Assassin (2007)

About book: Billed as a thriller, dark comedy, perhaps even horror novel, The Ethical Assassin might more accurately be dubbed a philosophical puzzler. Imagine the strange amalgam of these traits: reasonable, compassionate, socialist, feminist, and vegan; now place these within an assassin and terrorist. This is precisely the moral jigsaw confronting Lemuel Altick an encyclopaedia salesman, aspiring Ivy league student and as the novel progresses admirer of the ethical assassin, Melford Kean. The temptation and tension of this book is to come down on one or other side of the novel’s paradoxical title ethical or assassin. Yet holding the two together stretches the characters and the readers morally, the novel does not require us to agree with Melford but to comprehend what makes this killer with a difference tick.The Southern underbelly of Americana is vividly if not crudely set up in contrast to the character of Melford. The cast of characters include a corrupt cop, a hog farmer turned crank provider and pervert, a Kenny Roger’s look-alike called the gambler and a former siamese twin on the cusp of drug rehab who is finding a meaningful life with the aide of the ethical assassin. Many of these characters are animal in the most derogatory sense. Lemuel feels compelled by financial reasons to associate with the band of bookmen, con-men, yet slowly realizes the moral significance of his compromise. Melford’s rigourist stoic morality provides a hard to live but consistent alternative. Comprise is at the heart of Melford’s message specifically in relation to the treatment of animals in factory farms. During their association Melford forces Lem to become a vegan as a requirement to being his side-kick. Through analogy, values clarification and a lived experience of the brutality inflicted on animals, Lemuel is confronted with the problem of intentionally remaining blind to cruelty for the sole reason of comfort. Those of us readers who have not adopted the vegan option are bound to feel uncomfortable, even reactionary, but we are forced to listen to and understand the clarity of Mel’s argument. If he is right how are we to eat? Liss does not strong arm us the way Melford did Lemuel but the case is made and made strongly. Perhaps the readers will be made a tad more ethically aware. The assassin position is the extreme of Melford's choices and presents itself as only an option of desperation but Melford has a closely argued position on this course of action as well. David Liss positions us, along with the fans of Dexter (HBO’s dark comedy about a humane and entertaining serial killer) or even the likeable Tony Soprano mob boss, in having to clarify our values and actions in the midst of our commonly unreflective and paradoxical lives. Paradoxically we are motivated to move from being unthinking assassins of character, like the bookmen and criminals in the novel, to a position of ethical responsibility closer to Melford.

I was pretty intrigued at the idea of this book--- a mystery novel centered around an animal rights assassin. I have to admit that the book was written in a very readable style--- I finished it in two days. Although apparently I was rapt enough to speed read it so I could find out what happens, I was nonplussed by the political content. Perhaps I shouldn't have been. An award-winning novelists writes a book for a mainstream fiction audience--- I can't expect it to be written for me. That being said, I think that the exploration of ideology is the thing I found the most interesting in this book. The two main characters talk a lot about ideology and how the effect it has on how you perceive your own behavior and the people (and animals) around you. For example (from the book), if you perceive torturing animals as a normal act, that ideology will completely color how you behave around them. Conversely though, if you perceive food choices as a moralist argument, that will also influence how you act around the people you come into contact with.Another example from the book is the protagonist's boss, who has surrounded himself so thickly with the belief that people are good that he manages, it seems, to live a happy life. He believes people are good, and so he perceives them as being good and is therefore happy. This, by the way, is the "positive thinking" argument--- if you have a positive attitude, then good things will happen to you. However, there's also the matter of the love interest in this novel, a beautiful and sweet young woman. The reason, the protagonist surmises, that she is so sweet is due to the fact that as a beautiful young woman she gets treated well and therefore believes people to be good. This may seem similar to the boss scenario, but I think it's a lot different because it's not an intentional ideology. It's a matter of happenstance of birth.This brings me back to the "positive thinking" ideology and its association with free will, something I think about a lot. Is it really all about positive thinking? When hurtful stuff happens to people, is it because they weren't posi enough? Really? It has nothing to do with luck at all? Really? Not whether you were born into a mobile home with nary an encyclopedia in sight? Or whether you were in the crosswalk when the drunk driver ran the stop sign? I sometimes wonder if the struggle is in fact between those with a will to power and those who acquiesce or a war between the lucky and the unlucky.
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Weston Moulton
To be completely honest, this book was a pleasant surprise. When I first picked up the book I expected it to be about a kid whining about how hot it is outside due to the contents of the first few pages. To my surprise, the book picked up at a rapid, yet understandable, pace. It takes place in the mid 80's in Florida follows a boy named Lemuel. Lem is trying to make money for college when he witnesses the murder of two of his clients. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and it causes him to be a possible suspect for the event. The killer threatens to frame him, but says he won't as long as Lem doesn't do anything tricky. Throughout the book, Lem tries to ensure he doesn't get arrested. While doing this, he learns more about what society doesn't want you to know, and that the world isn't always as happy as it's made out to be. A big theme in this book seems to be idealism. A quote that likely has symbolism embedded in it is “I splashed some water on my face again because I thought that's what you do in a crisis. You wash your face. Did it really help, or was it a myth circulated by the soap industry?”. This likely means that the Lem is beginning to understand the workings of idealism and how it affects the public. Overall, this book had me all the way through due to how intriguing and beautifully written it was, to the point where I was legitimately sad when I finished the book because there was no more to read.
What is it about Florida that attracts all of the quirky suspense plots? I was not what to expect when I started The Ethical Assassin. I was hoping for something along the lines of Carl Hiassen or Tim Dorsey. I was not disappointed. The novel follows hapless Lem Altick, a nebbish kid selling encyclopedias door to door to raise money so he can go to college (and escape Florida). In a profound example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time he just happens to be in a trailer trying to close
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.Cross posted at This Insignificant Cinder
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