- Billy Summers, by Stephen King. Hodder, $32.99.
Master of the thriller Stephen King has been favouring American crime fiction noir recently with his Mr. Mercedes trilogy, The Outsider and Later.
Billy Summers continues that trend but is much more complex novel, as King weaves reflections from his long writing career into the plotline.
King sees last-job scenarios as an American cultural touchstone. "Everybody roots for the guy to get out of it," he has said.
Billy Summers, a 44-year-old decorated ex-Iraq war sniper, has become a contract hit man but only kills "bad guys".
He takes on one last job for a $2 million payout which will entail going undercover for months.
King sees last-job scenarios as an American cultural touchstone.
"Everybody roots for the guy to get out of it," he has said.
"There are always jobs that go wrong, but you always hope that the guy at the center of it, who has a good heart, will get out".
King sets the novel in pre-Covid 2019 Trump America, because "the story I was telling and all the movement, I had to move it back in time".
King realistically, as ever, describes the lives of the "ordinary Joes and Jills" in the small Southern town in which Billy assumes his new identity.
Billy poses as a writer, having always been an avid reader, especially of Zola, Hemingway and Hardy, but deliberately assumes a "dumb" persona for his middleman contract employer, reflected by only reading Archie comics.
Billy, who begins writing a novel incorporating his troubled childhood and his time as a "a garbageman with a gun", uses his fiction to ponder whether "someone who ends the lives of others, even bad people, can be considered good".
King has said in an interview, "What he (Billy) writes about are the things he's held in his mind and in his heart, and they're very important parts of what he became, which is a hitman.
"Of course, Billy's not stupid at all. In fact, he's really smart. Little by little as he writes his story, his defense mechanisms start to crumble."
Billy's self-examination increases after he takes in Alice, a young woman dumped outside his apartment after a brutal rape, with Billy exacting revenge on the perpetrators.
Alice becomes a part of his life, although he realises, "If you stay with me and if you live this life, you'll be ruined".
Events accelerate in the second half of the book, after the hit takes place, as Billy realises he has been used and is next in line to be killed.
Billy and Alice flee together while, at the same time, working up the contract chain to find the very big media name behind Billy's assignment and double cross.
The ending involves loss, hope and redemption on several levels.
Billy Summers is one of King's best ever novels.