Author RD Jahn is an expert at creating fully-fledged, complicated characters. He places them in ambiguous moral circumstances, fraught with fatal possibilities, and he does all this without wasting a word.
In The Gentle Assassin, we meet Harry living a quiet life in 1990 or so. A mild-mannered bookseller who spends much of his time mopping up after his alcoholic wife. But Harry has a bitter past, one crammed with ice-cold acts of intentional violence. Harry-Present has does his best to bury Harry-Past, but when his adult son (abandoned as a very young boy) comes looking for him, the past catches up with Harry in a big way. After all, Harry appears to be responsible for the death of his first wife; the mother of his long-lost son. And while it’s not clear which of Harry’s personae is best suited to cope with the situation, the son himself is working to a deadly agenda…
As with some of his other thrillers, Jahn chops and swaps the narrative perspective and tells his story in bite-size chunks. So historic events are gradually revealed in flashbacks; the ongoing story is told from multiple perspectives. Not everyone will enjoy this form of storytelling – you have three separate beginnings to reconcile – and it’s not initially clear what has actually occurred and what might be only acted out in the minds of the characters. Several of the threads are speculation, an insight into the characters’ thinking as they weight their emotional and physical capabilities against wild intentions and possible outcomes. The story itself is interrupted by excerpts from a CIA assassination handbook: chilling in its purposeful clarity.
The most remarkable thing about this slim novel – it didn’t take me very long to read, two indulgent afternoons – is how much philosophical debate is incorporated into such a streamlined story. It’s masterful. Where some authors would take entire chapters of endless exposition, Jahn shapes the outline of a compelling moral dilemma with a few swift strokes. His characters reveal their complexity in word and deed, and in this way he touches on many serious subjects: whether a son must necessarily ‘become’ his father; whether it is possible to reform and repent; the difference between assassination and murder; the pressures of responsibility at play in any meaningful relationship; even who shot JFK – the latter almost thrown in there as a whimsical aside.
Almost every section or chapter ends with a cutting observation, a blunt statement of human truth. A moment to make the reader stop. And think. On top of all that, there is a genuinely gripping dénouement where we’re really not sure what the outcome will be. Certainly someone will die. But who?
If you have read The Winter Of Frankie Machine (and you should) then you’ll find many similarities here. Likewise, A Last Act Of Charity approaches the same subject from a different perspective. The Gentle Assassin is outright excellent, in any case. An excellent example of just how good – how relevant, how thoughtful – crime fiction can be.