FROM MAJ SJÖWALL’S and Per Wahlöö’s masterful Martin Beck series of police procedurals, which autopsied the Swedish petit-bourgeoisie in the wake of the countercultural revolutions of the 1960s, to Jim Thompson’s explorations of the murderous impulses underlying Middle American politesse, to Walter Mosley’s exposés of the racism in post-World War II Los Angeles, crime fiction has always concerned itself with the darker side of human psychology and — of necessity — with the social contexts that give rise to criminality. Does deviant behavior have its roots in the individual psyche — are criminals “broken” people — or can we understand deviance as the inverse of the conformity meaningful participation in society implies? While the answers to these questions seem as various as those writers writing crime, no other genre lends itself to so pessimistic a view of human nature. Hence the genre’s troubling relationship to violence. Just as crime fiction blurs the line between cop and criminal, it blurs the distinction between deploring and glorifying violence. Moreover, the genre’s effect often depends on the lurid details.

A masterfully constructed hall of mirrors, Edgar Award–winning true crime writer Harry N. MacLean’s The Joy of Killing reinvents the conventional thriller. While its surface is a slick entertainment, MacLean dedicates much of his savvy novelistic debut to a deeply unsettling interrogation of the relationship between violence and human psychology, exploring the questions of criminality and deviance that define his chosen genre. Told in dark lyrical prose and revealing a master’s command of the form, it’s a rousing — though not an unqualified — success.

The novel begins with a single, fragmented memory, one which MacLean stretches over the course of the book: on a train hurtling through the Midwest, in the middle of the night, an inexperienced teenage boy has a sexual encounter with a girl sitting across the aisle. In the narrative present, 40 years later, that same teenage boy (now a man) tells the story, tapping it out on the keys of an Underwood in an attic room that resembles a garret. As if in slow motion, the night on the train plays itself out in tantalizing — and sometimes graphic — snippets, a device that proves infuriating as it continually breaks off the sex scene, yet keeps us turning the pages for the same reason. Our first clue something is wrong comes when the narrator recalls meeting Shelly Duvall at a film festival in Des Moines. Listening to her speak, he fantasizes about watching someone slit her throat:

The image of Shelly in red skews me off track and reminds me of how little influence I have over the stuff in my head, and how I have often felt the intrusions only as a burden, only recently beginning to see it — this story, the one of the girl on the train — as a path to freedom.

A former college professor with a controversial philosophical defense of violence, the narrator attempts to wrest control of his life by exercising control over his narrative. But the threads multiply, dooming his efforts. Each pivotal event from the narrator’s past seems a psychological touchstone that might help him define himself, as if one of these episodes might constitute the original wound that damaged his psyche, but which one is it? One summer, a childhood acquaintance drowns, a tragedy the narrator has repressed because he feels guilty for not helping his acquaintance. As adolescents, he and his best friend, David, have an experience with Willie, the town pederast. As an adult, the narrator walks in on David violently sodomizing the narrator’s first wife. Eventually, someone — perhaps David, perhaps the narrator — brutally murders Willie. Throughout, the narrator insists he cannot trust his own memory, as when he recalls giving the best man speech at David’s wedding, humiliating David’s wife: 

It was one of my favorite scenes and pretty out of character for me. Particularly since their cheating had never really bothered me. Was I really that articulate? Was the look on the bride’s face as ghastly frozen as I see it now? Did I really slam the champagne and march happily off the stage? I should have felt bad, of course — Julie, the bride, had done nothing to me — but I didn’t. A funny thing was, my former wife came to my room a few hours later, drunk and in her underwear, and demanded that I fuck her. I think I did, for ol’ times sake, or to get a final laugh on David, but it’s one of those things I couldn’t swear to.

The narrator tells us the story of his life, searching for that kernel of truth that might help him explain who he is. Lacking clear signals to help us distinguish between self-deception and outright delusion, we find ourselves immersed in his pathology. As with many classic unreliable narrators, we find it difficult to tell where our sympathy should lie. Yet while in canonical examples from James to Perkins Gilman to Nabokov, the writer gives us enough clues to place her sympathies, in The Joy of Killing, we’re not so sure where MacLean wants us to stand in relation to his narrator.

MacLean’s technique runs obvious risks, chief among them the possibility the reader — like the narrator — won’t be able to distinguish truth from invention, and therefore won’t be able to exercise any moral judgment. Nevertheless, the fact MacLean manages to weave these various threads together as adeptly as he does testifies to his facility with the form. At one point, the narrator claims to have aroused the ire of his “feminist colleagues” by publishing a novel entitled The Professor, in which a college professor with a peculiar theory about the nature of violence (our narrator?) murders his unfaithful wife. The narrator reveals The Professor’s controversial theory of violence: 

Moments of random harmony, it seemed, were supposed to be ones of great insight and beauty, where you intuitively grasped theory of relativity or dashed out The Stranger. That an experience of pure harmony could come from the taking of a life, from murder, was inconceivable. As crazy as the idea that Hitler could have been in a state of genuine rhapsody when he conceived of the Final Solution. 

Undeniably, the recurring scenes with the girl on the train have a whiff of fantasy, as though the narrator were inventing them. Yet while the narrator hardly seems reliable (much less sympathetic), the text itself bears out his claim that he experiences the most profound harmony he’s experienced in his life not when committing murder, but during his night with the girl on the train. Despite the book’s title, he seems to take very little joy in killing, or in anything else.

In that respect, it’s hard to decide what the narrative adds up to. Do the narrator’s “severe behavioral problems” as an adolescent result from watching his childhood acquaintance drown? Does his experience with Willie have a lingering effect on the narrator’s life, or do his problems go deeper? If he possesses a violent nature, is that intrinsic, or is it inflicted on him by the culture he’s part of? MacLean never answers those questions, and the narrative turns several backflips in the closing pages, piling reversal upon reversal to less than satisfactory effect. Nevertheless, MacLean doesn’t shy away from the complexity his subject demands, and by undermining the distinction between perpetrator and victim, he avoids cliché, muddying the boundary between the crime genre, the supernatural thriller, and literary fiction. Does the novel glorify violence? It’s hard to say. Certainly the lurid details keep us turning the pages, though the sexual encounter on the train proves more of a hook than the narrator’s (or any other character’s) bloodlust, of which we see very little, as much of the violence happens offscreen. 

According to the paradigm, violence restores order. In some respects, that’s what happens at the end of MacLean’s book, though by that point, we’re no longer certain whether that violence amounts to justice, or to a mercy killing. Perhaps in spite of its author’s intentions, the narrator’s theory of violence compels us, but for that reason, I want more: I want to know whether we’re supposed to walk away from the book thinking MacLean’s narrator is a victim, and I want the book to take a more definitive stand on what his struggle means. I also want the book to evoke the joy its title references, to enable us to experience it through the narrator’s eyes, assuming joy is what he actually feels when he kills (or does anything else). Unless, of course, MacLean means to demonstrate how flawed the narrator’s philosophy is. Yet for all my reservations about what the novel ultimately does or does not say, I devoured it greedily, in part because MacLean writes gripping prose, in part because the book is masterfully constructed, and in part, yes, because of those lurid details. Sometimes, The Joy of Killing adds up to less than the sum of its parts, but that’s true of lots of good — even great — books. In the end, MacLean suggests, the narrator’s struggle to tell his story justifies itself, demonstrating the need to connect that finally makes him human, whatever else he might be.

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Tom Andes has published fiction in Witness, Natural Bridge, News from the Republic of Letters, Best American Mystery Stories 2012, and elsewhere.