Recently I read The Manhunter by John Pascucci. I bought a copy because it’s one of the last books William Burroughs read before he died. Burroughs notes in Last Words that he liked a phrase of Pascucci’s: “the plot sickened.” It’s got a few whimsical phrases in it like that. But it also really is a sickening book in places: the “astounding” and “true” story of a police officer who searches for the worst criminals of all – Nazis and child-killers – but in the process realises he’s willing to do some pretty evil things himself to get the job done.
The dialogue in this book feels pretty fake: like Pascucci wanted to go down in history not just as a deep and troubled but kick-ass cop but also as something out of a Hollywood film, all cool and ready with the one-liners. But the struggle feels real, and the book is gripping, and you start to care about the main character – even in the places where the evil in him bubbles to the surface. But he justifies this with a philosophy: “utilitarianism”, the belief that it’s about the greatest good of the greatest number, and so sometimes the ends justify some pretty nasty means. If the stories in this book are true, if things really went down this way, then Pascucci is right to say that evil acts really can save lives, and sometimes it’s necessary to do evil for the sake of the greater good. But the fake sound of so much of this makes me wonder: like when he impales a man on a spike to get the location of the bomb just in time. It all seems too convenient, like satisfying Hollywood fare. And one thing Pascucci tells us over and over is that the “real world” is a mess, and nothing works out the way it does in the movies.
Another thing Pascucci tells us: that a criminal never has a philosophy. I agree that a Nazi’s “philosophy” is nothing but a rationalisation for carrying out acts of violence. But if Pascucci has done half the things he claims he has in this book, then he himself is a criminal, and his utilitarian justifications for the things he did start to sound pretty weak.