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Tucson Weekly Killer Plot

Sociopathology Takes A Grim Look At The Roots Of Identity In 'Taking Lives.'

By Randall Holdridge

APRIL 26, 1999: 

Taking Lives, by Michael Pye (Knopf). Cloth, $23.

DISSATISFIED WITH your life? Take someone else's. All you need is the opportunity, and with a little care you'll obtain a new passport, unlimited credit, and a functioning ATM number.

The serial killer in Taking Lives is Martin Arkenhout, a Dutch exchange student to the U.S., whose first killing isn't really a killing at all. Rather, it's an exchange of identities. He swaps names and numbers with an American college freshman of similar age and appearance when a highway accident makes it possible for him to escape "the scrubbed regularity" of his former life. Martin moves easily into the underground of New York's avant-garde art scene, until the father of his alter ego makes a visit to his NYU dorm. This requires Martin to take another life, this time after a thoughtful process of selection and calculation. Now, it's one life after another.

But Taking Lives isn't a gory thriller about a psychopathic rampage. While it is full of foreboding, this story offers little to the reader who wants blood-crazed boogie men leaping out of bushes or from behind doors after nightfall. Novelist Michael Pye is after more than goosebumps in this multi-faceted consideration of the vulnerability of personal identity.

Martin is not so much a psychopath as he is a self-absorbed, remorseless sociopath in relentless pursuit of the good life. He resents anyone who is "inhabiting the life he needs and living it without style and glory." In justifying his need to "start over," Arkenhout says, "You get to finish off somebody else's life, and do it better than they do."

Taking Lives' biggest fright is that this proves relatively easy for him to do--with a little research and the substitution of a thumbnail photo here and there--despite the vast mesh of connections which superficially sustains modern identity. It's possible in part because of Martin's facility of speech: "He knew how to dress up his mind in a language, not just get the vowels right." But it's possible also because there are plentiful lives that no one will miss so long as the electronic flow of 16-digit information continues uninterrupted.

In a hurried decision, Martin takes the life of professor Christopher Hart, who is living alone on sabbatical leave in Holland. Unknown to him is the fact that Hart is an art thief, pursued by a British Museum administrator, John Costa. Here the plot requires a frankly incredible coincidence to bring the killer and the sleuth together in a vacation spot in Portugal--but so it happens.

This setting, in a remote foothill village, gives Pye an abundance of metaphors to hammer home his thematic points: community life in a small town where all are known to one another, the obscuring smoke and obliterating flames of seasonal brushfires, twisting mountain roads doubling back on one another. All serve their purpose, as do the actual and fantasized love affairs which abound. More grist for this particular mill is the provenance of the stolen art works, which Hart has and Costa seeks to regain.

Attention shifts to the identity crisis which Costa is undergoing, mired in the collapse of his childless marriage and unpleasant revelations about his father's youthful identity as a collaborator with Portugal's fascist dictator, Salazar. Moreover, the local policeman, presumed to be Costa's ally, is actually a victim of Costa's father's betrayal years before. Costa's developing breakdown complicates the cat-and-mouse game between him and his murderous suspect. Ironically, the killer's assumed identity is more stable--perhaps even more "real" --than his pursuer's; though Costa's uglier, convoluted identity ultimately proves the more deeply rooted.

The authorial machinations in Taking Lives gradually come to feel heavy-handed. Fortunately, Pye has an astounding surprise ending in store--one that fully redeems both book and hero.


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