Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Slipping Into Someone Else

By Abigail Fisher

MAY 10, 1999: 

Taking Lives, Michael Pye (Alfred A. Knopf, cloth, $23)

"Two boys ride the bus through Florida. One of them won't be alive much longer." With the opening sentences of his new novel, Taking Lives, Michael Pye grabs his readers and drags them into a psychological thriller that moves with the intensity of a roller coaster.

Enter a serial killer who--unlike the stereotypical antihero who seems to have fascinated us all in the latter part of this century--kills not for sex or for the sake of violence but because he has a psychological need to take over the identities of other people. When each substituted life becomes more hassle than it is worth, he moves on to the next with a thoroughly disturbing yet captivating swiftness and skill. The reader feels like an outsider but is dragged into the story because of the compelling transformations the killer undergoes.

The novel moves through the early parts of the killer's life at a pace that forces us to keep reading, but unfortunately the story hits a brick wall when we are introduced to the protagonist, John Costa. Costa's life is filled with hardships, including a failing marriage, a mystery surrounding the death of his father, and his concern over the theft of rare artifacts stolen by a professor, Christopher Hart. His story awakens us from a nightmarish descent into the killer's world and brings us back to the sense of mundane problems that face the average person who has neither the ability nor the drive to live other people's lives better than they can.

As in most fairytales, the character who fosters the most interest and renown is the villain. Martin Arkenhout, the handsome, blonde, blue-eyed predator, picks his victims with care and precision. The simplicity with which he takes over another's identity is greatly disturbing. In one scene, Arkenhout sits over a table with a few credit cards, a passport, a driver's license and a social security card, laughing at a world in which these few slips of paper and plastic define one as a person. The reader, on the other hand, is horrified.

The real captivation I found in the character was the almost hypnotic presence possessed by this unassuming and mild-mannered man. Though definitely anything but mild-mannered, Hannibal Lecter greatly reminds me of Martin Arkenhout. The two share a demonic charm in the sense that most readers know what they do is warped and demented but at the same time cannot help being drawn to them because of their charisma.

Providing a counterpoint to Arkenhout's harrowing tale are the beautiful and relaxing descriptions of the setting in Coimbra, Portugal (Pye's residence). In an interesting mosaic of local color and visions of a tropical paradise, Pye brings the reader ever nearer to the humid air and dirt roads that drift through the landscape. It is here that John Costa finds himself attending his father's funeral and keeping a close watch on Christopher Hart. Aware that there is something darker about this man than was previously suspected, Costa begins to uncover the hidden side of Arkenhout, soon revealed to be Dr. Christopher Hart.

As the story unravels, the character of Arkenhout is a blessing that keeps us satisfied as we are dragged through a slow, confusing and sometimes altogether tedious tale of corruption involving Costa's father and the depression that invades the page in the form of Costa's wife. Although undoubtedly necessary to fill out the novel, the subplots rolled by as I quickly skimmed page after page waiting to hear about what happened to Arkenhout.

Taking Lives is a worthy read, and Michael Pye should be acknowledged for having created one of the most interesting, complex and outstanding characters since the vampire Lestat. His work is direct and realistic, leaving the words to tell an amazing story, not just to embellish a mediocre one. With a startling directness and breathtaking intensity, those who find themselves unable to look away from a car wreck will find themselves staying up way past their bedtimes, staring into the pages of this horrific thriller.

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