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  • The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death
  • Written by Charlie Huston
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  • Written by Charlie Huston
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The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

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A Novel

Written by Charlie HustonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Charlie Huston

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: January 13, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-51307-6
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

With his teaching career derailed by tragedy and his slacker days numbered, Webster Fillmore Goodhue makes an unlikely move and joins Clean Team, charged with tidying up L.A.'s grisly crime scenes. For Web, it's a steady gig, and he soon finds himself sponging a Malibu suicide's brains from a bathroom mirror and flirting with the man's bereaved and beautiful daughter.

Then things get weird: The dead man's daughter asks a favor. Every cell in Web's brain tells him to turn her down, but something makes him hit the Harbor Freeway at midnight to help her however he can. Soon enough it's Web who needs the help when gun-toting California cowboys start showing up on his doorstep. What's the deal? Is it something to do with what he cleaned up in that motel room in Carson? Or is it all about the brewing war between rival trauma cleaners? Web doesn't have a clue, but he'll need to get one if he's going to keep from getting his face kicked in. Again. And again. And again.

Excerpt

I’m not sure where one should expect to find the bereaved daughter of a wealthy Malibu suicide in need of a trauma cleaner long after midnight, but safe to say a trucker motel down the 405 industrial corridor in Carson was not on my list of likely locales.

—Ouch. That looks painful.

I touched the bandage on my forehead.

—And if that’s what it feels like to look at it, imagine how it feels to actually have it happen to you.

The half of her face that I could see in the chained gap at the edge of the door nodded.

—Yeah, I’d imagine that sucks.

Cars whipped past on the highway across the parking lot, taking full advantage of the few hours in any given Los Angeles county twenty-four hour period when you might get the needle on the high side of sixty. I watched a couple of them attempting to set a new land speed record. I looked back at Soledad’s face, bisected by the door.

—So?

—Uh huh?

I hefted the plastic carrier full of cleaning supplies I’d brought from the van.

—Someone called for maid service?

—Yeah. That was me.

—I know.

She fingered the slack in the door chain, set it swinging back and forth.

—I didn’t really think you’d come.

—Well, I like to surprise.

She stopped playing with the chain.

—Terrible habit. Don’t you know most people don’t like surprises?

I looked over at the highway and watched a couple more cars.

—Can I ask a silly question?

—Sure.

I looked back at her.

—What the fuck am I doing here?

She ran a hand through her hair, let it fall back over her forehead.

—You sure you want to do this, Web?

That being the kind of question that tips most people off to a fucked up situation, I could very easily have taken it as my cue to go downstairs, get back in the van and get the hell gone. But it’s not like I hadn’t already been clued to things being fucked up when she called in the middle of the night and asked me to come to a motel to clean a room. And there I was anyway. So who was I fooling?

Exactly no one.

—Just let me in and show me the problem.

—Think you can fix it, do you?

I shook my head.

—No, probably not. But it’s cold out here. And I came all this way. She showed me half her smile, the other half hidden behind the door.

—And you’re still clinging to some hope that a girl asking you to come clean something is some kind of booty call code, right?

I rubbed the top of my head. But I didn’t say anything. Not feeling like saying no and lying to her so early in our relationship. There would be time for that kind of thing later. There’s always time for lying.

She inhaled, let it out slow.

—OK.

The door closed. I heard the chain unhook. The door opened and I walked in, my feet crunching on something hard.

—This the asshole?

I looked at the young dude standing at the bathroom door with a meticulously crafted fauxhawk. I looked at bleached teeth and handcrafted tan. I looked at the bloodstains on his designer-distressed jeans and his artfully faded reproduction Rolling Stones concert T from a show that took place well before he was conceived. Then I looked at much larger bloodstains on the sheets of the queen-size bed and the flecks of blood spattered on the wall. I looked at the floor to see what I’d crushed underfoot, half expecting cockroaches, and found dozens of scattered almonds instead. I listened as the door closed behind me and locked. I watched as Soledad walked toward the bathroom and the dude snagged her by the hand before she could go in.

—I asked, Is this the asshole.

I pointed at myself.

—Honestly, in most circumstances, in any given room on any given day, I’d say, Yeah, I’m the asshole here. But in this particular scenario, and I know we just met and all, but in this room here?

I pointed at him.

—I’m more than willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that you’re the asshole.

He looked at Soledad.

—So, yeah, he’s the asshole then?

She twisted her hand free and went into the bathroom.

—He’s the guy I told you about.

She closed the door behind her.

He looked at me.

—Yeah, you’re the asshole alright.

I held up a hand.

—Hey, look, if you’re gonna insist, I can only accept the title. But seriously, don’t sell yourself short. You got the asshole thing locked up if you want it. He came down the room in a loose strut I imagine had been meticulously
assembled from endless repeat viewings of Tom Cruise’s greatest hits.

—Yeah, I can tell by the way you’re talking. You’re the one fucked with her today. Made jokes about her dad killing himself. You’re the asshole alright. The toilet flushed, Soledad yelled over it.

—He didn’t make jokes!

The dude looked at the closed door.

—You said he made jokes.

He looked at me.

—Asshole. Fucking go in someone’s home, there’s been a tragedy, go in and try to make money off that. Fucking vulture. Fucking ghoul. Who does that, who comes up with that for a job? That your dream job, man? Cleaning up dead people? Other kids were hoping to grow up to be movie stars and you were having fantasies about scooping people’s guts off the floor?

I shifted, crushing a few more almonds.

—Truth is, mostly I had fantasies about doing your mom.

He slipped a lozenge of perforated steel from his back pocket, flicked his wrist and thumb in an elaborate show of coordination, and displayed the open butterfly knife resting on his palm.

—Say what, asshole?

Say nothing, actually. Except say that maybe he was right and I was the asshole in the room. Certainly being an asshole was how I came to be there in the first place.


From the Hardcover edition.
Charlie Huston|Author Q&A

About Charlie Huston

Charlie Huston - The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

Photo © Virginia Louise Smith

Charlie Huston is the author of the bestsellers The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death and The Shotgun Rule, as well as the Henry Thompson trilogy, the Joe Pitt casebooks, and several titles for Marvel Comics. He lives with his family in Los Angeles.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Charlie Huston, author of
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

Question: The title of your new novel, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, is one of the most unusual and memorable I've seen. How did you come up with it?

Charlie Huston: I didn't. It is a line from the book, but it was my editor who suggested it as the title. My first choice was The Sharp Edge of a Flat World. Also a line from the book, but it was my wife who suggested it would make a good title. I'm moving into a long title phase.

Q: The action takes place in the messy world of crime-scene cleanup in Los Angeles: a world I never thought about too much before reading this book. Now I can't stop thinking about it. What made you realize this milieu was a rich one for a novel, and how up close and personal was your research?

CH: I don't think I realized anything so much as it hit me in the forehead with a rock. I mean, come on, if you're a crime writer placing a character in the world of professional trauma scene cleaning is the ultimate no-brainer. I stumbled into an awareness of the profession while researching something I've forgotten entirely. It hooked me and I started looking at websites for various trauma cleaners and a handful of news stories. I did no hands-on research, just had a couple conversations with some professionals in the field.

Q: Tell us about your hero–if I can use that term to describe the emotionally scarred Webster Fillmore Goodhue

CH: He's a mess. Just a fucking mess. He's also toting around a tremendous amount of attitude for a guy slacking as hard as he is. Sometimes too smart for his own good, he's mostly too self-absorbed for his own good. The kind of guy you like hanging out with most of the time, until he starts getting into his dick mood. You know that guy. Funny as hell, always has something interesting to say, and all of a sudden he gets all dicky. And he should know better. That's Web.

Q: There's a famous scene from the old TV show The Rockford Files that came to mind as I was reading this novel, in which a slap to the face is the answer to the age-old Zen koan about the sound of one hand clapping. Partly that was because the title has a Zen-like sound to it, but even more I think it was from the way you fuse the tawdry backdrop of LA with the gritty nobility of characters like Po Sin, Gabe, and even Web himself. This mix of the seedy and sublime is also present in your other novels–why is this such a distinctive aspect of your work?

CH: I know that scene. I can picture it in my head. I can see the look on the face of the woman who's just been slapped, and I can hear James Garner's delivery of the line. And maybe that suggests why you thought of Rockford when you read Mystic Arts. Not only am I a huge Rockford File fan, but my original concept for Web and this book was to do something in a Rockford style. My other characters have been hard asses or deeply sad in some way, or both. Web has tragedy in his past, but it's not his defining characteristic. I wanted to write a book about a guy who would end up getting knocked around more often than not. I wanted a lighter tone, and I wanted to use the seedy Los Angeles that I've come to love very quickly. The hope is that this will be the first in a series of Web Goodhue books. I imagined him as my first real detective character, and I wanted this to be a book about how he starts to become a detective. I've always pictured the tattoo parlor he hangs out in as the equivalent of Rockford's trailer.

Q: I wondered if you spoke the dialogue in this book aloud as you were writing it. All your books have sharp, realistic dialogue, but the dialogue in Mystic Arts really crackles–and a lot of the novel is pure dialogue, snappy back and forth between characters, which must be a tough trick to pull off in itself.

CH: Generally I don't speak my dialogue aloud as I write it. When everything is working, I hear it very clearly in my head and don't feel the need to hear it in my ears or feel it in my mouth. But there are times when it seems jarring or clumsy and in need of a talking to. Then I'll play it out a little and see how it comes out on the tongue.

Q: A moment ago, you mentioned going for a lighter tone. But I've always felt that a lot of your stuff is flat-out funny.

CH: I'm always pleased when people find the books funny, but it's rarely something I'm shooting for. I think the earnestness I put into the books tilts over into an area that I don't understand very well. Which I like. I like that there are huge aspects of my own writing that I don't get. It's nice to be able to learn from yourself.

Q: You're also the author of the Joe Pitt Casebooks, a series of gritty vampire noir novels set in and around New York City. How are you able to move so easily between different genres: horror, noir, fantasy? Do you reject the idea of genre labels?

CH: I don't reject genre labels at all. I think they're very useful when I'm at the book store and looking for a particular kind of read. I do think they get paid too much attention within the reading and writing world, but that's to be expected. Classification makes it easier to talk about things. Still, I was shocked when I began making a living in this business that the biases between literary and genre fiction were so strong on both sides.

As for moving between genres, I don't know that I do. Yes, Joe Pitt is a vampire, and, yes, those books have a lot of horror effects and trappings, but the essence of the stories is old-school noir. They have far more in common with Chandler than they do with Stoker.

Q: Speaking of genre-bending, you also had a stint in comic books, writing the relaunch of Marvel's Moon Knight character. What about doing original graphic novels, or adaptations of your other work? I would think Joe Pitt, especially, could thrive as a graphic novel.

CH: I think about it more than a little bit. I'd love to see a Joe Pitt adaptation, or even some original Pitt stories told in graphic form, but I don't know when I'll ever have the time.

Q: Has there been any movie interest for Joe Pitt?

CH: The first Joe Pitt book, Already Dead, has been optioned by Phoenix Pictures. They have a script by Scott Rosenburg that I thoroughly enjoyed, but I don't know anything else about the project.

Q: What are you working on now?

CH: I just sent a stand-alone crime novel off to my editor, and while I'm waiting to hear back from him I'll be working on the fifth and final Joe Pitt novel. I also recently wrapped some scripts for a Marvel Comics miniseries that I'm not allowed to talk about as yet.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“There are many things to love about Charlie Huston’s fiction–he’s a brilliant storyteller, and writes the best dialogue since George V. Higgins–but what pushes my personal happy-button is his morbid sense of humor and seemingly effortless ability to create scary/funny bad guys who make Beavis and Butthead look like Rhodes Scholars. [Charlie Huston has] written several very good books, but this is the first authentically great one, a runaway freight that feels like a combination of William Burroughs and James Ellroy. Mystic Arts is, however, fiercely original–very much its own thing.”—Stephen King

“Smoking-hot… scorchingly good dialogue and banner-worthy chapter headings (like “Till His Neighbors Smelled Him” and “To Keep Him From Crushing My Spine.”). And Mr. Huston, whose own brain matter is as much on display as the stuff that gets spattered here, finally delivers a book that anyone can admire. No strong stomach required.”—New York Times

“Huston has outdone himself by introducing disaster-prone Web Goodhue, the star of a comic masterpiece called The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death…Charlie Huston has for several years been one of the best-kept secrets in American fiction; this novel might move him into the mainstream. If you believe that the world is mad–a position that with each passing day becomes easier to accept–The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death will provide welcome support for your view. 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.”—Washington Post

“Just when you think you’ve caught up with him on the curve, Charlie Huston drives right off the cliff, landing on a road no one else could see…Shockingly original…The outlandish characters are brazen originals, and the dialogue is the roar of a death-defying talent.”—New York Times Book Review

“A witty and amusing dark tale of friendship and family and all the problems that come with both. Web is a likeable character in spite of his personality disorder, one that the reader wants to see come out on top, which makes the book that much more fun to read.”—bookbitch.com

“Though most of the characters have all the noir subtlety of Sin City, this hard-shelled novel has a soft, sweet centre. Searching for a measure of healing and to repair the damage done them by their parents and the world, the good characters struggle toward redemption. [Huston] has found a way to cast a whole new generation into the noir genre and that can only be a good thing for its future.”—reviewingtheevidence.com

“Genre writers too often set the hook quickly and hard, glossing over the subtleties of character in their haste to reel in the reader, ultimately using plot as a club. Not so Huston…The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is as darkly funny as it is graceful, not necessarily what you'd expect given that it's a novel about a guy whose livelihood involves mopping up blood and bone fragments…If one tends to find humor in unlikely places, Huston has created a work that is sly, twisted and surprising–one well worth the investment of time.”—Denver Post

“Huston's novels are among the most imaginative and compelling in the mystery and thriller genres…In The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, Huston finds pathos and the sublime in a story about an occupation for which there is no training or career path.”—Pittsburgh Tribune

“It's a pretty neat trick to avert your eyes while you read, but The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston is so fresh, funny and original that I managed …The characters range from the slightly odd to the bizarre-doesn't-even-begin. You might feel ashamed of yourself for laughing, but I won't tell. Just take a bath afterward, and remember to scrub out the tub.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Hilarious, with the comedy getting darker and funnier as Web falls ever deeper into an intricate, overpowering mess that even he may not be able to clean up. 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.”—Dallas Morning News


From the Hardcover edition.

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