Written by Books

Billy Summers by Stephen King

I’m not sure what kind of deal Stephen King has with his publishers (Simon & Schuster in the US, Hodder & Stoughton in the UK), but I do know that every so often, he publishes a book with Hard Cast Crime, the noir paperback imprint that comes with original illustrations on the cover, as though recreating the disposable crime fiction of post-war era. Hard Case Crime publishes both new novels and digs out long-out of print and sometimes previously-unpublished books by some of the writers of the era. Last year King wrote Later for them, having previously also written The Colorado Kid and Joyland.

I reckon King really enjoys doing these books. I’m sure that the tiny Hard Case imprint doesn’t pay as well as his main publishers, even though his titles undoubtedly sell vastly more than the average title. But reading Billy Summers, it feels like it could easily have been another Hard Case title.

This is noir tale of the eponymous Billy, a hit-man who is doing one last job. He knows the score with these – having seen far too many movies about that very subject (this novel is incredibly knowing throughout). But the money is just too good.

There’s a “bad man” who needs to killed, and Billy is to shoot him going up the court steps of the small town where he’s being transported to. Exactly when this will happen is unclear as the target is currently in custody for getting into trouble with someone he thought was a prostitute but turns out to have been a writer. When that all gets sorted out in LA, he will be moved to the town where Billy is to face far bigger charges. The target is a hit-man himself, and he obviously knows too much.

The cover story Billy is given is as a writer who is being holed up in the town by his agent to finish his book. (I told you this is a knowing novel!)

So Billy sets about his task, with his fake persona – and then another one too, just in case. The first part of the novel builds all this out, and creates a plausible small-town world where someone just has to settle in and bide their time, all the time aware that after he’s done the deed he’s being paid for, his neighbours will be on the local TV news saying, “He was just a normal guy…”

But things aren’t as simple as that, and while Billy is suspicious of the motives behind the men hiring him, something else – someone else – happens, and things turn on their head.

Since Billy’s cover story is that he’s writing a book – he decides he probably should. And we get to read sections of it, telling a story of a kid who shot his mother’s boyfriend after he’d murdered his sister, before being sent to a children’s home, and ending up in the military and serving in Iraq.

Beyond the book within a book, Billy is also very literary and there are lots of references dropped throughout. Although Billy plays “dumb” with those hiring him, hiding his copy of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin within a copy of a comic book in case anyone should see him, he’s very smart and just hides it.

King is also using this to thunder at some recent US politics. I laughed out loud when King revealed who was on a mask that our protagonist needs to wear at one point. And you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to know whos a certain character later on is based on.

This is a thumping good read – a complete page turner. Is it always believable? Nope. Are there aspects that might be have been written differently if this book came at another time? Yep. But I enjoyed it immensely.

[Side note: After I read this, I went away to read a couple of reviews. I’d skimmed The Guardian’s review initially because that had made me buy the book. But I’d worried that it might give away too much plot so I left-off just after the reviewer said this was King’s, “Best book for years.” In fact going back, the review doesn’t give too much away, although I think I’ve been more economical with the plot here. Then I read the review from The New York Times. I almost didn’t want to link to it, because while I think it’s very fair, it gives away pretty much everything! I loathe reviews that do that, particularly when they ruin the endings in the way this one does. OK – it doesn’t completely destroy the ending of the book, but a major reveal that comes late in the book is referenced pretty clearly, and any reader who sees this review will have that completely spoiled for them. We’re not talking about M Night Shyamalan type reveals – just plot twists that you get in thrillers. But it’s no fun for readers when reviewers spoil them.]