Written by Federico Axat, translated by David Frye — If you’re looking for a psychological thriller which is heavy on the psychological and somewhat lighter on the thriller element, yet provides enough suspense in the last part of the book, then look no further. This novel by Argentinian writer Federico Axat, his first to be translated into English, is nothing like what you might expect from reading the original blurb. It is not the story of a suicidal hitman, nor even a ‘you kill for me, I kill for you’ scenario reminiscent of Strangers on a Train. It is, in fact, a novel of three parts, and it is remarkably hard to speak about the second and third parts without giving away too much of the story.
If you come to this expecting to find an Argentinian setting you might be disappointed. Just like in Swiss author Joel Dicker’s runaway success The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, all of the characters here have names from the English-speaking world, and the backdrop is unabashedly American: a house on the lake, Disney castles for children, small towns, and a college campus taken straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement. There is another similarity with the novel by Dicker: there is quite a lot of flirting with post-modernism and playing mind games with the reader. However, this novel is somewhat shorter and has a more satisfying conclusion.
The initial premise is quite promising. The exact translation of the Spanish title would be ‘The Last Way Out’, and that is a perfect description of the tricky situation Ted McKay finds himself in at the start of the novel. Having been told he has an inoperable brain tumour and only a few more months to live, McKay takes advantage of the fact that his wife and daughters are away on holiday and plans to commit suicide. Just as he is about to shoot himself, the doorbell rings and a stranger called Justin Lynch comes to him with a macabre proposal. Since he has nothing left to lose, why doesn’t he commit two murders before his suicide? The first intended victim is a despicable murderer who has been acquitted due to a lack of evidence, while the second wants to die, like Ted himself, but would rather that someone else pulled the trigger. Initially sceptical and unsure of himself, Ted does take on the assignments in the end. But, of course, nothing goes according to plan and it seems that Lynch has lied to him.
If the story had stopped there, it would have been in traditional crime thriller territory and intriguing enough. The author, however, is more ambitious and takes us into a labyrinth of possible scenarios which can be very confusing. The reader and some of the characters are then catapulted into a mental institution. Scenes from the first part of the book start to repeat but end in different, unexpected ways. Ted, the people around him and you as the reader will all begin to doubt the veracity of the various conflicting accounts.
The second part of the novel gets a bit bogged down in explanation and speculation, but the pace picks up again in the third section, when Ted is brought back to reality and has to confront his own past, his family and his darkest fears of abandonment. The writing style seems to be struggling to make up its mind what it actually wants to be, lurching between hardboiled noir in the first part, something akin to magical realism in part two, and action thriller in part three.
There are some descriptions of violence against women and animals which feel a tad gratuitous. And, I was unable to figure out the meaning behind the odd recurring motif of a possum which Ted alone seems able to see. All in all, this is a decidedly different and often challenging read, perfect for those who enjoyed unusual crossover fiction like The Murder of Halland or Broken Monsters.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars