Weighing in at 1001 pages, Richard House’s genre bending thriller The Kills invites comparison with such contemporary literary landmarks as Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. It is not only the length and the author’s faith that in the world of the tweet and the sound bite there are still readers willing to immerse themselves in a creative world for an epic journey, even when it isn’t entirely clear where that journey has taken them. And while The Kills is certainly neither as impenetrable as 2666, nor as elegantly tidy as 1Q84, it manages to take the reader on a breathless roller coaster tide with thrills aplenty, if not quite 1001 pages worth.
The Kills is really four separate books — related, but separate. The first, “Sutler,” deals with a contractor for a Halliburton-like company who is working in Iraq under that assumed name. He is set up as a fall guy in an embezzlement scheme, and the book follows his attempt to escape the consequences. “The Massive,” the second of the books, goes back in time to before his arrival in Iraq, and describes the company’s activities and its careless treatment of the men who do the work. The third of the books, “The Kill,” takes the novel in what seems a completely new and unrelated direction. It tells the story of a bloody thrill kill in Naples, which may be a real killing or may be a piece of fiction. Either way it is the subject of a novel which in the way of meta-fiction, turns up in the other books. The final book, “The Hit,” ties up many, but not all of the loose ends, as it deals with the discovery of three men who may or may not be Sutler.
In the sense that the four books constitute a coherent novel, it is neither character that unifies them, nor is it setting. Although there are a few characters who appear in more than one of the four books, House focuses on different characters in each. When there is interaction, it is minimal and for the most part there is no interaction at all. They exist in unrelated universes. The different books roam all over the world — Iraq, Turkey, Chicago, Naples, Cypress. Even when characters from the different books are together, as some of them are in the second of the books, they have little to do with one another.
If there is something holding it all together it is theme. What each of the books has in common is its investigation of evil and its effects on those touched by it, the innocent — if in fact there are any truly innocent — as well as the guilty, major characters as well as minor. House describes a world where evil in its many forms seems to be everywhere; be it motivated by money, or cruelty for its own sake evil is the human condition.
The Kills is not what you’d call a casual page turner. It is the kind of book that the reader needs to think about and absorb. It is a thriller, but an intelligent thriller. It is bound to disappoint readers looking for an exciting yarn with everything tied up neatly at the end. It is more likely to find its audience among readers more attuned to the investigation of ideas in the frame of mind that the poet Keats called “negative capability.” The world The Kills describes is an irrational world. Rational explanations are not always possible.
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