Understated and prophetic, Cook’s novel captures several different attitudes, unfolding
a mutual story of love and friendship in the narrative voice of Philip Anders, a middle-aged, stay-at-home literary citric who has been kept at the margins with limited personal prospects. Philip finds himself plunged into the role of amateur sleuth when confronted with the suicide of his friend Julian Wells.
An expatriate writer and avid adventurer, Julian had traveled the world, writing fabled books about injustice, torture, and the atrocities and outrages of serial killers. Loretta, Julian’s sister, tells Philip that her brother was an artist with a curious obsession. “Like a man in a locked room trying to get out,” Julian was an “immortal detective in pursuit of some equally immortal arch-villain.” Loretta was
more shocked than anyone else when Julian made his way to the small pond that bordered his house and opened his veins in a little boat that the two of them had used when they were children.
With images of Julian’s bare arms dangling in the water still fresh in Philip’s mind, he sets about to considering Julian’s life as if his friend were a mystery whose disparate clues were part of a giant puzzle. In the months before, Julian had been unusually agitated, but the dreadful manner of his suicide and his heartbreaking loneliness opens Phillip up to both questions and memories, forcing him to confront the stark fact of how little he
Philip’s fascination with the deeper mysteries of Julian’s life are part of a larger disorder, “one fiber sprung from a hideous cloth.” The idea that Julian had a genuinely dashing, James Bond-like masculinity takes precedence in this story of alternating chapters that outlines a number of Julian’s disturbing books, like
The Torture of Cuenca. Dedicated to Philip as the “sole witness to my crime,” this haunting and upsetting book points to a different, darker, and perhaps still-unsolved "crime."
From the solitary life Julian led in France, an habitué of a seedy bar in Pigalle with its talk of evil women who brilliantly disguised their vile crimes, to the way Julian made himself companion to alien and host, to a map of Argentina and the grim fact of the unexplained disappearance of an innocent tour guide in that country‘s Dirty War, there
is little doubt Julian was floating in some "similar sea of strangeness." A "small crack appears in the wall" of what Phillip had always assumed about Julian, especially when he
is warned by his father that Julian’s world is probably nothing more than a twisted illusion.
Cook utilizes a nostalgic, wispy tone in a story of friendship that flashes backwards as Philip is lured deeper and deeper into Julian’s mind and character. Traveling to Paris and then to Budapest, Philip discovers Julian’s land populated by the legends of sadism, most reflected in the evil eyes of Countess Bathory. Julian’s fascination with the Countess’s sordid past ekes out a frightening path that leads him in his attempt to capture her elusive moral nightmare. Julian’s words reverberate, reminding us of Philip’s initial mission and emphasizing all too well the plight of those who must face terror in isolation.
We know that Phillip will be imperiled “like a man moving down a river into a Conradian darkness,” his journey a series of connections which in the end don't make much sense.
As Philip faces a world of shifting loyalties that threaten to tarnish the silvery brightness of Julian’s life, the reader is left wondering about the aftereffects of courage in the context of friendship’s
strange, fluid symbiosis.