Cook’s 27th dip into his fictional characters’ troubled past asks why an expatriate writer took his own life.
Before he rowed out to the middle of a pond and slit his wrists, Julian Wells’ most notable legacy was his shelf of meticulously researched true-crime studies of notorious serial killers. His death, however, creates a more poignant legacy for his sister Loretta, a failed actress and copy editor, and his old friend Philip Anders, a reviewer whose father, like Julian’s, was a State Department functionary. Why would Julian have chosen to kill himself during a particularly quiet period of a largely uneventful life? Taking his cue from the dedication of Julian’s first book—“For Philip, sole witness to my crime”—Philip retraces his friend’s steps over three continents and 40 years, focusing at length on a trip the two of them took to Argentina, a rare journey that was not designed to produce background material for one of Julian’s books. He recalls their friendship with Marisol Menendez, a guide to Buenos Aires who vanished into the deep shadows of the Casa Rosada during the dirty little war of the 1980s. As he interviews an activist priest, a Casa Rosada contact of his father’s, and a Russian agent who earned the sobriquet the Rostov Ripper, Philip can feel himself getting closer to one of those grimly climactic epiphanies so characteristic of Cook (The Quest for Anna Klein, 2011, etc.). This time, however, the big reveal seems neither inevitable nor weighty enough to justify the weight of the portentous buildup.
This sprawling update of Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios lacks the baleful focus of its model, or of the most successful of Cook’s own nightmare excavations of the past. Wait till next year.