TAKING LIVES by Michael Pye


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It’s a pity Alfred Hitchcock isn’t around to direct the inevitable film version of this witty and intricate intercontinental thriller from the acclaimed historian (Maximum City: The Biography of New York, 1993) and fiction writer (The Drowning Room, 1996, etc.). Pye’s dazzling story begins with a clipped, brusque present-tense narration of the life and crimes of Martin Arkenhout, a 17-year-old Dutch student in the US who assumes the identity of an American boy he meets while traveling through Florida, after the latter is critically wounded by a hit-and-run driver and Martin phlegmatically finishes the job. Then, having discovered the advantages of being able to shed his identity at will, he continues to “take lives,” murdering, then “becoming” one acquaintance after another, until at last slipping into the skin and personal history of art teacher Christopher Hart: a “Seventeenth-century specialist, Dutch interests. A man trying to get noticed in the shadow of Simon Schama.” This newest life takes Arkenhout to Amsterdam, where he’s sighted by his mother (who informs the police), then to Portugal, where he’s tracked down and eventually confronted by John Michael Snell Costa, a Portugese-American “museum functionary” assigned to investigate Hart’s presumed theft of some invaluable illustrated manuscript pages. As Costa’s pursuit of “Hart” proceeds (the former having become, in one of the most dexterous twists here, the narrator), Pye skillfully expands the action to include a further investigation: into the reasons behind Costa päre’s return to his homeland, and the question of whether he had been an enemy of postwar dictator Salazar, or, instead, a member of Portugal’s notorious secret police. The pursuer becomes the quarry, and a climactic meeting with Arkenhout’s mother chillingly unlocks the key to her son’s opaque amorality. Tough as nails, and superbly constructed, with a lingering bitter aftertaste. This is about as good as literary thrillers get. (First printing of 50,000)

Pub Date: March 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40260-8
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1999


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