Dave Zeltserman is at it again writing about ex-con antiheroes with the kind of panache that would make Jim Thompson, king of the psycho killer novels, proud. In fact, there’s more than a passing resemblance to Thompson’s classic, “The Killer Inside Me.’’
Even Thompson might be taken aback, though, by the matter-of-factness with which Zeltserman gets inside the head of Leonard March, just released from jail 14 years after cutting a deal to turn state’s evidence on a Mafia boss who assigned him a couple dozen hits. It isn’t until after the DA grants him immunity, though, that the full scope of the March madness comes out.
As the story picks up, in Waltham of all places, March is trying to go straight. He’s working a menial janitorial job, trying unsuccessfully to forge a relationship with his children while grieving about his wife’s death, and making a virtue of his working-class lifestyle. He’s even more sympathetic than the protagonists of Zeltserman’s previous ex-con books, “Small Crimes’’ and “Pariah.’’ He can’t even bring himself to kill the mouse that’s
scurrying around his apartment.
The problem is that nobody else intends to let him get away with mass murder. Not the hoods. Not the media. Not the public. And certainly not the beautiful woman who wants to write the 62-year-old’s biography.
And what about you, dear reader? Are you going to let March get away with it or fall prey to Zeltserman’s seductive story? It isn’t so much that the Needham writer elicits sympathy, though he certainly does. March prevents the robbery of a liquor store and a possible homicide or two. He stands up to a macho abuser. We don’t forgive him for past sins, but he seems to loathe himself more than we do. The affect is similar to Mickey Rourke’s in “The Wrestler’’ a world-weariness that still holds the possibility of redemption.
This is only part of what’s going on, though. The point isn’t to elicit sympathy, but to get inside the mind of a murderer, to see the world as he sees it. A life of crime seemed to be the logical career move for a half-Jewish kid in a Catholic neighborhood who was better with his fists than his schoolwork. Add an unhealthy dose of amorality, a sprinkle of psychopathology, and voila.
Even that doesn’t really address what makes “Killer’’ seem so, sorry, dead-on. More than in his previous books, Zeltserman makes a virtue out of the spareness of his writing. Other noir writers try to emulate the purpleness of Raymond Chandler’s prose or the toughness of any number of crime writers. Zeltserman is content to let the narrative flow uninterrupted. As the story shifts from present to past, the precision of March’s observations, even when he’s fooling himself, drives the action on a steady path without a hint of cliché or sentimentality.
Zeltserman could be even more precise. When March reads a book or goes to a movie, why not tell us what they are? Maybe Zeltserman’s saying that it doesn’t matter; they’re only ways for March to kill time. Still, I sometimes wish his characters would stop and smell the cordite.
That’s a minor cavil, though. It might be considered something of a guilty pleasure to walk on the wild side with Zeltserman’s killers. But there’s no need to think of the pleasure as guilty anymore than the characters think of themselves as guilty. Their days at the office are bloodier than ours, but sometimes that’s the only difference. That we neither celebrate nor condemn March is the unsolved mystery of the book and what gives “Killer’’ its special kick.