Werewolves may not have suffered the overexposure forced on vampires, but they haven't exactly been ignored, either. And as with vampires, the contemporary imagination seems mostly to focus on their tragic potential: immortal, loveless monstrosities forced to live in a world without kindness, where their own nature must inevitably betray them to atrocity. Melodramatic, yes, but one acknowledges the inherent possibilities. The trouble is that, decades after Interview with the Vampire, sympathy for the supernatural verges on the passe, and writers working in that territory have to bring something new or profound to the table. Despite its breathless cover copy, Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf manages neither hurdle.
Jake Marlowe, the titular beast, is so world-weary that knowledge of his own impending execution by werewolf hunters barely strikes a nerve. He's content to lie down and let it happen. But, because this would otherwise be a very short novel, fate intervenes, throwing him into the middle of complicated machinations involving vampires, ancient secrets, and layers of intrigue within the occult police force that wants-- or does it?-- to end werewolf-kind entirely. And then, something yet more unexpected comes along, something that reawakens Jake's lust for life, just when death seems most inevitable...
If all this makes The Last Werewolf sound like a thriller, that's what the book ultimately is. For the first hundred pages or so, it indulges certain literary ambitions, of which more later, but soon the plot twists come thick and fast and introspection is largely pushed aside. At first, this is something of a relief, because Duncan is more adroit with sudden violence and double-crossing than he is with werewolf angst, but after a good deal of build-up the novel ends abruptly, with an anti-climax that leaves several plot threads merrily dangling in a way that, intentionally or not, suggests the possibility of a sequel. It's not enough to entirely obviate the pleasures of the preceding two hundred pages, but it's very much a letdown.
The book's thematic resolution, while reasonable enough, is likewise disappointing: too facile, an insufficient pay-off for the time earlier pages spent laying these issues out. The author wants, it would seem, to address large questions about good, evil, and survival, but because the novel is written in the first person, it never achieves the distance necessary to look at its protagonist's behavior with an appropriately jaundiced eye. Point-of-view is a powerful tool for generating sympathy, and simply being inside Jake's head generates a minimal interest that he doesn't deserve. At first he's simply a supernatural variation on the idle rich, musing on his putative desire to stop living even as he drinks exquisite wine and patronizes expensive prostitutes in fancy hotels. He says that he wants to give it all so often that one wonders why he doesn't just pitch himself out a window. The reason, of course, is that for all his talk of suffering he wants what most people want: to live. So his world-weariness rings hollow, and quickly begins to grate.
The flashbacks to Jake's first days as a werewolf, in which he commits what would be a shocking crime if it weren't what most supernatural creatures do after becoming what they are, are among the novel's finest sections, written (as all the werewolf transformations are) with a poetic fire that has genuine visceral effect. But this style also has a distancing effect; Duncan evokes the primal fulfillment of the werewolf's nature so well that the moral dimension disappears from consideration. To describe violence in stylish language is, however unintentionally, to glamorize it. One can't sympathize with Jake because one recognizes that what he's doing is monstrous; one can't sympathize with his victim because she, like most of the novel's other characters, remains distantly seen, interesting only in terms of Jake's response to her. That response includes flashes of what might be guilt, but they're so intrusive, so alien to his actual behavior, that they read like authorial interjections rather than suggestions of a bruised and buried conscience. Ultimately, despite bouts of hand-wringing the novel fails to confront the true nature of its protagonist's behavior, and so the thematic resolution, which might otherwise have felt horribly inappropriate, is simply glib.
Despite these drawbacks, the novel is thoughtful and effective enough, both as a thriller and as a literary novel, to remain compelling across its three hundred pages. Several key plot points are carefully set up, and the prose is never less than elegantly taut, although Jake's penchant for literary allusion comes to seem affected, and the constant variations of "in a movie, this would play out differently" serve only as reminders that this too is a fiction, and one that hews closely to the tropes of the form. It may have higher ambitions, but The Last Werewolf achieves its greatest success as a page-turner: intense, frightening, surprising, and morally flat.