Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Philip Caputo: Equation for Evil

Although I have been straying in my project to "read every unread book on my shelves A-Z", I am really still trying. This book is still in order- I'm still on the C's, but it's another little detour- I picked it up at Red Hill Books in Bernal Heights a couple of weeks ago, even though the initial project guidelines clearly stated: "read all unread books A-Z prior to bringing any new unread books home." However, I added some fine print to the guidelines when I saw that Red Hill had a couple of Philip Caputo books that I haven't read, and decided that it was okay to buy them as long as I put the newly acquired books in the pile of "to be read next" books, which is where this one belonged, anyway, as it started with a "C". (Oh, the rules and regulations of an obsessive-compulsive... that's for another post.)

Anyway, I guess Philip Caputo has been around and writing great books for awhile. I didn't know this until a few months ago when I stumbled on his 2005 book, Acts of Faith and totally loved it. "Faith" was a fictional book with real life issues. Equation for Evil isn't quite that serious. As best as I can figure, it's a California version of Bonfire of the Vanities view of mid-90s malaise/malignancy turned into a thriller. It's a pretty great book if you, like me, don't read many thrillers. A special agent and a forensic psychologist are called in by California's state Attorney General to do a forensic autopsy after a horrible crime is committed on some kids in San Joaquin. The turn up- probably predictably if you read thrillers, but surprisingly for me- a whole lot more than they bargained for. The two are the odd couple- an assimilated 5th generation Chinese-American special agent and a down on his luck psychiatrist who is on the cutting edge of figuring it all out (in his head) about how nature and nurture work together.

The book, written in 1996, takes place in 1993, and California, especially the central valley and southern California, was a racial mess then. Caputo throws this into his thriller with charm, and doesn't hit the reader over the head with it. The crime is initially thought to be the work of neo-Nazis, but the crime fighters and the victims are dealing with much, much more systemic racism than a few skinheads.

My favorite insight is as follows, from page 194. Think about it, and tell me if there isn't something disturbingly accurate here:


Christopher Coumbus Transcontinental Highway

The Sign appeared at the city limits. Nearly three thousand miles away, I-10 ended in Jacskonville, Florida. The plague seemed to have struck worst in the two states joined by the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway. Disney World in the one, Disneyland in the other, sunshine and random violence in both. Perhaps there was some mysterious connection between overbright skies and Mickey Mouse, some evil synergy between warm climates and fantasy that drove young men to kill without reason.

If that's not genius in the guise of a thriller, well, I'm going to keep reading anyway to find out, but this one comes highly recommended.