It’s been some time since I last read a physical book; most of my reading is done through the use of an electronic device. Even my recreational reading tends to be on my Kindle. So it felt like something of a lark to step into the Small World Bookstore in Santa Monica and buy an actual book. My selection came from the “staff picks” desk and had the most compelling title I’d come across in quite some time.
The plot of My Immaculate Assassin is at once relatively simple and immensely complex. Jack, the narrator, is a 45-year-old divorcee who falls into a relationship with Maura, a woman a few years his junior and possessed of genius-level technological skills who works for the government in a highly secret capacity. She combines various technologies and develops a way to assassinate anyone, anywhere, and in such a fashion as to make the death appear to be completely natural or accidental.
The “undetectable tabletop assassin” conceit of the book adds massive moral weight to Jack and Maura’s relationship, but it is that relationship which is the real focus of the book. After her “proof-of-concept” test on Bashar al-Assad, Maura finds herself in need of a muse, a guide, a source of strength and counsel before she can use her device again. Jack finds himself presented with an opportunity to steer her towards the public figures he deems most harmful, which are offered to the reader with a molecule-thin veneer upon prominent conservative figures from the real world.
Two things happen as Jack and Maura fall in love. They use Maura’s special ability to advance their relationship with one another; the thrill of killing and the justifications they use to balm their morality drive them closer together at each point their romance appears to reach a stalling point.
More importantly, they also learn about one another. Maura may be a 39-year-old virgin but her past is not so simple; Jack is haunted by the failure of his marriage and a deep sense of masculine inadequacy. Jack plays steps into the role of Lady Macbeth to Maura; the role of “muse” or “inspiration” is traditionally filled in fiction about male actors by their female romantic counterparts. His political inclinations animate what feels, for a time, like a dark liberal fantasy. But the reader understands all along, and Jack refuses to articulate but clearly does as well, that this fantasy will inevitably turn into a nightmare.
Fiction dealing with death in a serious way seems doomed to also include sex at some level. The generative, life-affirming force of sex stands in high contrast with the bleakness of death. As this novel is about a romantic relationship between two unlikely killers, the sex cannot be left implicit. Often, literary depictions of sex suffer awkward descriptions on paper of something that is better experienced with bodily sensation. Here, the author uses the inadequacy of expository techniques to enhance the reader’s impression of Jack and Maura’s inadequacy as lovers. Though explicit, their assignations are not particularly titillating to read. This is decidedly not pornography, and there are vital clues about what’s going on emotionally between the two lovers within these passages. The results of their encounters are not fully pleasing to either, at least not until they pass critical points of acquiring trust in one another and, through trial and error, learn how to more skillfully give pleasure. It’s a refreshing take on a traditionally awkward facet of both literature and life.
The moral abyss into which Maura and Jack plunge, their shy and guarded personalities, and the tentative nature of their romance, combine to put the two in danger. The real emotional heart of the book comes almost exactly in the middle after their physical and emotional perils collide. Struggling to make sense of his radically transformed life, a troubled Jack withdraws into himself in a chapter entitled “Reflections” which demands nearly immediate re-reading. Realistic, ambiguous, and crafted to mirror a mind clawing for understanding in the midst of chaos, this stands out as the most powerful segment of writing in the novel.
Alternatively melancholy and piercingly thrilling, My Immaculate Assassin pulls no moral punches. Its heroes are conscious of the dubious moral ambiguity of their project, and their experiences bring out more of their flaws as their story progresses. The character of Maura is a haunting portrait, even more so than the fate of the undetectable assassination project.
It’s a relatively short novel, one that can be easily consumed in an idle weekend, or in my case, over the course of several nights as bedtime reading. It’s helpful to remember that the book was probably written before real-life events rendered the opening scene moot. Although this occasionally disrupts the suspension of disbelief, I advise the reader to disregard it as best possible: the beating heart of this story is not the political dimension of the killings, but rather the unconventional relationship of the killers.
If you’re interested in the book, it appears to be available only in paperback form, so order it through our Amazon link and throw some of the money back to paying the bills that keep our website up an active.