When we first meet 17-year-old Lem Atlick, he's selling encyclopedias door-to-door in a south Florida trailer park in the blistering heat to earn money to go to Columbia University. Always the successful salesman, he is invited into the mobile home of an anxious married couple, Karen and Bastard, and despite his discomfort with their odd behavior, he attempts to sell his educational goods to them. However, this transaction is cut surprisingly and violently short when his two customers are shot right before his very eyes by a rather charming young man named Melford Kean, who prefers to operate under the title assassin, as opposed to murderer, and generously doles out lectures on the benefits of vegetarianism and Marxism.

Lem soon finds himself unwittingly hurled into a world full of corrupt police chiefs, lisping rednecks, a formerly conjoined twin with a mysterious schema, drug smugglers and hog lots that conveniently double as places to hide dead bodies, all while still trying to attain the affections of the charming, sole female saleswoman, Chitra. Staying alive and innocent has never been so difficult.

The Ethical Assassin is David Liss' first non-historical novel, which may surprise many of his fans. Though the setting is a departure for him, the story is still full of the intelligence, humor, intrigue and suspense that marked his earlier works, which include The Coffee Trader (2004) and the Edgar Award-winning  A Conspiracy of Paper (2001). This time, Liss takes his readers to the rural town of Meadowbrook Grove, right into the thick of its delicate and dangerous secrets. The reluctant hero's journey involving criminal affairs and bizarre characters is not only engaging, but also refreshingly funny. The Ethical Assassin is a vibrant novel that is difficult to put down.

Stephanie Szymanski is a writer living in Pennsylvania.

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