Most writers, if they can produce novels as meatily ambitious and emotionally involving as some of Stephen King’s recent tomes (The Outsider, The Institute), would feel the need to give their brains and fingers a rest for a decade or so. But King relaxes in the short breaks between masterpieces by writing terse, pawky crime novels, homages to – or pastiches of – the American hard-boiled school.
Billy Summers, his latest novel – my calculator blew up when I tried to count them, but it’s something like his 63rd – reads like an attempt to marry his two late styles: it’s a thriller that has designs on readers’ heartstrings as well as their adrenal glands.
A basic outline of the plot might suggest that King is either committing wholly to parody or has simply run out of ideas.
The eponymous Mr Summers, formerly a Marine and trained sniper, is now an assassin, but one who only accepts the commission if the target is an evil person – in common with nearly every other fictional assassin you come across in our touchy-feely times.
Ready for retirement at 44, he agrees to take on one lucrative last job, and pre-empts the reader by acknowledging the cliche: "’one last job’ is a sub-genre. In those movies the last job always goes bad." And so it proves.
Giving old material a makeover
The pleasure stems from watching King work his magic on shopworn material and upcycle it into something both attractive and idiosyncratic – as he did in the great horror novels of his early career. In a folksy, ruminative narrative voice, he uses his plot as the springboard for a presentation of his philosophy of life; suspense is secondary.
The slightly implausible set-up of Billy’s final job involves him pretending to be a novelist and hiring an office in a nondescript Mid-South town while he plots his kill.
A writer manque, he decides to spend much of his time actually producing a book – his memoir.
Extracts about the horrible things he has witnessed add depth to the character and allow King to wax lyrical on one of his favourite themes: the transformative and therapeutic power of writing.
Weaving spiritualism into suspense
If the novel’s first half resembles The Day of the Jackal, the second is more of a conventional revenge thriller as Billy realises his client has tried to double-cross him. But although there’s violence aplenty, what’s more memorable is Billy’s determination to redeem himself by becoming a decent man. Somehow King convinces us that this cool killer, sensing his time is up, really would fret about keeping his neighbours’ house plants alive when they’re called away.
At one point Billy observes to himself that people who are in a happy relationship are "richer" than those endowed only with mere money, and then adds: "Sentimental but true". As we read, we believe wholeheartedly in the truth of King’s sentimental lessons about the desirableness of the unexciting lives of decent people or the possibility of redemption, for the same reason that we believe in his unlikely plot and stock characters: his storytelling genius.
The Daily Telegraph