Master of crime, too? Stephen King hits the mark with assassination thriller 'Billy Summers'

·4 min read

It’s downright unfair, really: Not only is Stephen King an undisputed master of horror, he’s a virtuosic crime novelist as well. Look out, bodice-ripping romance, he’s probably coming for you next.

King has been dipping into noir and detective thrillers recently with the “Mr. Mercedes” trilogy, “The Outsider” and "Later," but his new book, “Billy Summers” (Scribner, 528 pp., ★★★½ out of four, out Tuesday), proves this run is no fluke: He actually is as good at the hard-boiled prose – in this case, the tale of an extremely effective assassin trying to get out after one last job – as he is the scary stuff. There’s also multiple coming-of-age stories, a book-within-a-book, an overarching mystery, a dash of political commentary, some twists and a touching side to the narrative exploring the fine line between bad men and actual monsters.

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“Billy Summers,” by Stephen King.
“Billy Summers,” by Stephen King.

A decorated Iraq war vet, Billy is the man to call if you need an assassination done right, though he has a strong code: Billy only puts a bullet in people who he feels deserve to be put down. Uncannily adept as both a shooter and an escape artist, Billy decides that his latest assignment, sniping a fellow hired gun powerful people want dead because he knows too much, will be his last. The caveat is he has to wait for his mark to be extradited back to a small Southern town from LA., so Billy has to blend into the community for several months and pretend he’s a writer working on a book as he sets up for the big day.

A superstitious sort, Billy finds himself unwittingly forming close relationships in town (his absolute truth: “I like to fly under the radar”) and actually becoming inspired to write about the traumas from his childhood as well as his stint as a peacekeeping Marine in Fallujah, Iraq. The gig goes sideways, of course – as “one last jobs” usually do in crime thrillers – and King fashions a sprawling road trip/revenge piece/character study involving mobsters, moguls, patsies, soldiers and one young woman brought to a crossroads after a sexual assault who becomes a major player in Billy’s existence.

King’s known for his literary villains, yet in creating his killer title protagonist, he exquisitely gets into the mind of a hitman and roots around in there to figure out what kind of person would do wetwork, the loneliness involved for those who choose that as a career path and the effect it would have on friends and loved ones. “Bad people need to pay a price. And the price should be high,” Billy says, though much of his journey is figuring out really what kind of man he is.

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Stephen King has two new books this year: "Later" and "Billy Summers."
Stephen King has two new books this year: "Later" and "Billy Summers."

At the same time, King also in meta fashion discusses the nature of identity and storytelling. To do his job, Billy has to juggle various personas to keep off the radar of cops and crooks – even pretending to be his “dumb self” so people underestimate him – though his novel becomes a PTSD-laden place where his inner truths get worked out. King even seems to be speaking from experience when Billy opines about half-finished novels in the world and how “the work got too heavy for the people trying to carry it and they put it down” – though by looking at the man’s output lately, King’s shouldering those literary burdens like Atlas.

Those worried he’s gone full Raymond Chandler, never fear: King makes it clear that “Billy Summers” very much exists in his creepily familiar world. It’s also very much a part of ours as well, with a few Donald Trump references and a foreshadowing of the COVID-19 crisis as Billy hunkers down and has to watch life go by outside, less because of a pandemic and more because of his morally questionable chosen profession.

The biggest crime here, however, would be missing out on “Billy Summers” and King’s new reign as a pulp genius.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Billy Summers': Stephen King proves to be a master of crime as well

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