cover image Taking Lives

Taking Lives

Michael Pye. Alfred A. Knopf, $23 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40260-9

The second novel by the author of The Drowning Room is equal parts literary thriller, noir study of the mysteries of identity and poignant account of exile and return. It begins as Martin Arkenhout, a Dutch exchange student traveling in Florida, brutally dispatches a traveling companion badly injured by a hit-and-run driver, rationalizing the death blow as a mercy killing. He then takes over the victim's identity and begins a series of such killings, ever in search of new persona--as long as each victim has good sources of cash and credit. One of them, however, turns out to be an art historian who has stolen some valuable antique watercolors from the British Museum, and John Costa, a minor official at the museum, sets out to find him. He tracks Arkenhout to Portugal, where the novel takes a new turn--for Costa's father recently returned there after a life of exile in London, and on his death it becomes clear that he left a mystery, related to the dire politics of the old days, behind him. Costa and Arkenhout both become involved with an attractive local lawyer; there is an inevitable further murder and yet another switch of identities; and the book ends on a somberly enigmatic note. Pye is a writer with a remarkable eye and a fresh, vigorous style, and many scenes leap to life; the sense of rustic life in Portugal is exquisitely rendered (the author lives there), and he is equally adept at sudden outbursts of violence. But the book's rather shallow concept, including its unconvincing sex scenes involving the Portuguese lawyer, weighs against its virtues. It reads as if the author intended to write a modish thriller, then was led, by the weight of his material, into more interesting but ultimately unresolved directions. 50,000 first printing. (Mar.)