After devouring this author’s other titles (A Conspiracy of Paper, The Coffee Trader, A Spectacle of Corruption, The Devil’s Company and The Whiskey Rebels), I was nonplussed to encounter a Liss book not only written about contemporary American society but reading more like a Carl Hiassen spoof—albeit a much better written spoof–than his usual brilliant works of historical fiction. Giving Liss the benefit of the doubt, I read on. The Ethical Assassin is an occasionally funny, sometimes exciting, but mostly moralizing story told from the viewpoint of recent high-school graduate Lemuel Altick, who takes a job in Florida as an encyclopedia salesman in order to earn enough money to go to Columbia University. Little does he know that the company is actually a front for a bunch of sleazy characters involved in the production and sale of crystal meth.
Working a trailer park for suckers who might buy the encyclopedia set and earn him a commission, the hapless Lem encounters a skanky couple, Bastard and Karen, who clearly are not prime targets for his salesmanship but who nonetheless keep him talking for nearly three hours before meth-head Karen writes him a check. At that moment, a guy bursts into the trailer and shoots the couple in the head. Describing himself as “an assassin” rather than a murderer, Melford Kean takes a terrified but fascinated Lem under his wing for the remainder of the story, protecting him from the rest of the meth gang—including the township’s corrupt police chief—while teaching him the virtues of going vegan and protecting animals from corporate America. Along the way, we watch Lem grow into a mensch as he slowly comes to embrace Melford’s well-articulated philosophy, gets the girl, battles the bad guys, and walks into the sunset.
I won’t say the book isn’t a fun read. Liss is a master at making the stench of a meth lab or a hog farm as visceral as the street stink of 18th century London. And his “bad guys” are comic-strip despicable, especially the rapist police chief who nurses bruised testicles throughout the plot due to an early encounter with a would-be victim who turns the tables on him. And I won’t say the book isn’t thought-provoking, as Liss is careful to play devil’s advocate, offering a variety of well-formulated challenges to the animal-centric philosophy he himself clearly espouses. What is definitely wrong with The Ethical Assassin is that it is a diatribe disguised as a novel, and as such, suffers the stultifying effect of bringing the action to a crashing halt mid-plot in order to debate at length the ethics of eating meat and animal testing. I can appreciate Liss’ passion, but found it much too heavy-handed to be successful as literature. Contrast this book with his later work The Devil’s Company, in which Liss presents us with a brilliant expose of the powerful and nefarious British East India Company of 18th century England, responsible for everything from the African slave trade to the Opium drug trade and representative of the very evils of corporate capitalism which Liss rails against in The Ethical Assassin, yet without ever departing from his plot. I look forward to more of Liss’ historical fiction.