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Friday, April 6, 2012

The Last Good Man, by A. J. Kazinski, translated by Tiina Nunnally (hardcover, $26.99)

The Last Good Man is a Danish book that has won a couple of foreign awards. A. J. Kazinski is the pseudonym of Anders Rønnow Klarlund and Jacob Weinreich. Klarlund is a filmmaker, so guess where this book is probably headed! And, frankly, I would be standing in that movie ticket line.

On the face of it, this is an apocalyptic thriller. Two police detectives, Tommaso di Barbara in Venice and Niels Bentzon in Copenhagen, are drawn into figuring out what has killed people all over the world. These people -- di Barbara and Bentzon have found about twenty of them so far -- die with an odd, burning, stigmata-like rash on their backs. Di Barbara is convinced these people represent some of the thirty-six "righteous" people (Tzadikim Nistarim from the Talmud) who guard the world from evil. How many people are left who might be saved from death? 

It soon becomes mostly Niels' story, and he gets some help from Hannah Lund, whom he meets while trying to find one of the "good" people who might be the next victim. Hannah represents science in its purest form. She's an astrophysicist, crippled emotionally by the death of her son and desertion by her husband. She tries to find a "system" by which the next victim can be identified. It is Hannah's struggle to reconcile enjoying the scientific puzzle with the realization that human beings are at peril that adds to the interest.

There are action and chase scenes and all the mandatory props for a thriller, but it is the authors' use of the myth of the thirty-six righteous people that carries the intrigue forward. If there are these people and they all die, will that herald Judgment Day? The last part of the book heads into spiritual territory, but always within the context of no matter who or what has created the thirty-six people (and, remember, we still don't know if there are actually thirty-six saintly souls), the question remains, who or what is killing them.

Kazinski starts the book with a scene of a researcher putting a picture face up near the ceiling of an operating room. Will some of the people who die in the operating room and are subsequently resuscitated relate that they floated to the top of the room and viewed themselves on the operating table? Will they "see" the picture and be able to identify it accurately? That's almost a forgotten element of the story until the end.

It is a race against the clock in the best thriller style. But it is also a very moving book about people trying to do their best, trying to forgive themselves, trying to help others. That's what really separates this book from other apocalyptic novels and makes me raise my thumb up in praise. (Plus Nunnally really is a good translator.)

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