These days, death is sexy. Forensics-obsessed TV shows frame corpses and crime scenes in warm, moody lighting, making murder, suicide, and the occasional natural expiration appear like part of some vast, never-completed work of modern art. But they tend to avoid showing the nasty bits; the stains and fluids the dead leave behind on their way off this mortal coil are filed under "evidence," to be discussed in scientific (and occasionally squirm-inducing) terms, but without real-world immediacy. No matter how peaceful the end, there's always a mess, and no matter how personal that mess may be, someone always has to clean it up.

Webster Fillmore Goodhue, the hero of Charlie Huston's novel The Mystic Arts Of Erasing All Signs Of Death, is familiar with a wide variety of messes. He's a former teacher who spends his days hanging around his roommate's tattoo parlor, bumming money and generally being an asshole to anyone within shouting distance. There's something in Web's past to justify the attitude, but his friends are losing the patience it takes to be around him. He needs a change of space, so when a fat man named Po Sin offers him a job, Web takes it. The position is with Po Sin's crime-scene-cleaning crew, and it means getting his face in things most people spend their lives trying to avoid. And when Web gets involved with the daughter of Clean Team's latest mop-up, things get really tricky.

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Explaining any more would spoil the fun; Huston mashes together traditional noir with explicit gore and a healthy dose of black comedy, and the result is a moving, eye-opening piece of pulp entertainment. As Web discovers, there's something humanizing in dealing directly with the realities of human mortality. In taking the romance out of death, Huston reduces its power; it's hard to linger on tragedy when there's literal shit to deal with. The thriller plot is serviceable but unremarkable, and it occasionally becomes a distraction from what's really important: Web's struggles with his own problems, and his attempts to bring himself back to the world of the living. With some messes, the only thing to do is pull on the gloves and start scrubbing.