Taking Lives by Michael Pye

Alfred A. Knopf 1999 295 pp. 23.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


"Don't you ever think of being someone else? Of starting again, but radically? You could make up a whole new life." That's the premise of Michael Pye's stylistically arresting new novel, Taking Lives. The protagonist, Dutchman Martin Arkenhout, does just that, with a twist: the new identities he assumes throughout the novel result from a series of grisly serial murders.

Hitchhiking in America with an acquaintance, seventeen-year-old Arkenhout is initially horrified to find his companion dead, the victim of a hit-and-run. Perverse pragmatism overcomes his fright, however, and he disposes of the body, taking over the victim's identity. For the next ten years, Arkenhout perfects his craft, singling out a new victim just as circumstance is about to reveal his false identity. Making his way around the Caribbean and Europe, he achieves a pleasant stage of affluent idleness, punctuated by the occasional need to stalk and kill.

"He has a career like any other young professional, with its demands and crises: like the need to move on. He has to work at being casual and shiftless."

If this sounds eerily like the life of Patricia Highsmith's character, the loveable Thomas Ripley, you're right. However, while Highsmith's interest was in tracing the effect of decades of suppressed guilt on her protagonist, Pye's thematic interest is different: Pye demonstrates the amoral seductiveness of taking over someone's identity.

Arkenhout murders art professor Christopher Hart, who is on sabbatical in Holland, only to find he has made a mistake. Hart has stolen some priceless drawings, and it's only a matter of time before the owners at the London museum get wind of the real Hart's crime. Arkenhout, as Hart, could be arrested for a crime he didn't commit.

A clever narrative shift occurs at this point: the narrator reveals himself to be Jose Costa, a museum employee deputized to locate Hart and the missing art. In an artfully understated whopper of a coincidence, Arkenhout-Hart flees to Portugal, the ancestral home of Costa's father. Costa's dying father has decided to emigrate back to Portugal from England, allowing Costa to achieve the dual purpose of catching the thief Hart, and discovering his own Portuguese roots.

Setting up residence near "Hart" in Formentina, a tiny Portuguese village, Costa inaugurates an elaborate cat-and-mouse game, attempting to secure the artwork without involving the local authorities, not knowing that "Hart" is a vicious killer: "two men married by a crime, never quite losing sight of each other, but keeping quiet as though quiet made everything ordinary."

A local lawyer, Maria Mattoso, helps both of them with housing, and becomes the focal point of an oddly perverse romantic triangle. Simultaneously, Costa discovers that his father wasn't who Costa thought he was.

What distinguishes this novel is its fine, if occasionally showy, style. Pye masterfully evokes the Portuguese countryside, the look of a submerged corpse, the stifling oppressiveness of a crowded streetcar. Most of all, Pye reflects on identity, and how it resides not in ourselves, but in our documents.

"They're what authority requires to let us walk onto a plane, look at books, touch our own money; they don't just prove who we are, the cards are our identity itself. Power wants us numbered and not named, carded and not just remembering our name, address, telephone number, purpose, social security number, PIN, and so forth. Power has good reasons. As long as we have papers, we cohere; we don't shift like character or personality or desire. We're available to be managed."

There is little of the existentialist frisson of, say, Antonioni's The Passenger until the end, when a truly surprising twist leaves the reader with the thought that you could "finish off someone's life and do it better than they do." Part mystery, part evocation of place, Taking Lives ultimately asks us to confront ourselves in the mirror with the realization of the slipperiness of personal identity, and the seductiveness of the impulse to assume a new self, one that we can get right this time.