Tag Archives: contract killer

Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo

“I’ve unleashed an architectural mental case.”

Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo is the story of a hit-man who discovers a life beyond his work, and for someone who’s been traveling the globe assassinating a fair number of people, this intellectual  ‘awakening’ begins to cause problems. De Feo’s clever character-driven plot follows the hit-man as he steps away from his unexamined life and begins to discover a world beyond his weapons. The result is an excellent, unusual and intense character study which combined with the book’s unexpected dark humour makes Calling Mr King one of my finds of the year.

The book’s title is actually the modus operandi with which the shadowy organisation called the Firm keeps in contact with their top hit-man. This American-born assassin who hails from New York state has one talent, and it’s a talent he marketed when he had nothing else to sell. He’s a superb shot, and this makes the hit-man a valuable commodity.  Hits are conducted for the Firm on a world-wide scale, and during the course of the tale, the hit-man travels to Paris, London, New York and Barcelona. When given a new job, he hops a plane to his destination, and then waits in a hotel room for the phone call. An anonymous caller will ring and ask to speak to Mr. King. That’s the signal for the hit-man to find the nearest public phone, call his contact and receive instructions for his next hit.

When the book begins, the hit-man is in Paris. The city is wasted on the assassin; he dislikes the French (but then he dislikes people in general), and at one point he tells a Parisian taxi driver to “go choke on a snail.” Paris may be a tourist destination, but to the hit-man, it’s just another hotel in another town, with another man to kill–the sooner the better:

All these people around us were of absolutely no importance. They didn’t really exist anymore. They were part of the scenery. They were nothing. Paris now contained only him and me.

He’s known for his efficiency in tracking his target and establishing a pattern of behaviour, even forming a strange sort of “bond” with the victim as he gets to know his routines and some aspects of his life. This time it’s different; the killer finds his Parisian target “exhausting.” The hit-man tracks his victim day after day as he “bounced around Paris”  for appointments, shopping, dates with friends, a meeting at an art gallery, and an evening at the opera. The hit-man realises that there’s no clear established pattern of behaviour this time–his victim who’s like a “damn kangaroo” is packing his day with appointments and activities:

I became absolutely convinced that he knew his days were numbered. And since he knew, he wanted to get a lot of living done before the end. What I was watching then, all of this peculiar energy, was simply a pathetic attempt at a last fling.

As the days multiply without a clear, safe opportunity for assassination, something begins to happen to the hit-man. He becomes extra cautious, and he begins to wonder if he’s losing his edge. While the Firm is impatient for the contract to be completed, the hit-man begins to wonder about his victim. Was it “last-minute curiosity? A kind of softening.”

When he returns to London, the hit-man, who’s given the name Peter Chilton, by the firm, is a little shaken by the events in Paris. The next hit takes place in Derbyshire, and once again, Chilton hesitates, and this hesitation–a sort of emotional involvement or interest in his victim–leads to some complications. As far as the Firm is concerned, Chilton screwed up big time:

You see, if you had fucked up this way in the city, I don’t think it would have caused such a stink. After all, city life has its hazards. You wanna live here, you gotta take your chances. Sometimes people get caught in the cross fire. Sometimes they’re hit by stray bullets. It doesn’t happen here like in New York, which is the fuckin’ Wild West, but it happens. And, of course, we have all those crazy mick bastards running loose blowing off heads, legs, dicks and time they feel like it. But it’s all part of living in good old London. You understand.  

Like I said, if this old man had been shot here, I don’t think it would’ve been noticed so much. Nobody would’ve been  happy, of course, and there would’ve been some bad press, but the fact is it wouldn’t have been unusual enough to make a really good story. He was an old bugger too, so it wasn’t as if he had years ahead of him. ‘Old Man Killed in Street Shoot-Out.’ That would have been it. But what happens instead? The old bugger gets his head blown off in some fuckin’ field in Derbyshire. You see the drama here? The oddness? When was the last time you heard of a pensioner being gunned down in a field in Derbyshire, or, for that matter, in any bloody country place? You get my drift? Nothing much ever happens in places like Derbyshire. Mostly what they get in the counties are serial lunatics. And that’s because of boredom more than anything else. You stay in the country long enough and either you grow brain dead or else you turn into a fuckin’ madman. You begin to hate your wife or girlfriend or maybe even your very own mum. And before you know it, you’re roaming the countryside chopping up women. Very sick, but there it is. And yet when you look at it, these lunatics are pretty rare. Maybe one turns up every two years, three years. Maybe that’s because most people get so brain-dead in the country they don’t even have the energy to go crazy.

As a result of his screw up, he’s sent on a ‘holiday’ back to New York by the Firm. This seems like punishment, or it just may be until things calm down, but deciding that his future with the firm is murky, Chilton plunges into his holiday with a great deal of enthusiasm, delving into his new-found interest in Georgian architecture. Soon Chilton begins resenting his work as it interferes with his reading, and when the Firm orders him to leave the city, he takes a trip back to his old home town–now withered and gutted by a lack of industry. In this bleak town, Chilton’s memories reveal a bleak childhoodwith zero chance for personal enrichment.

As Chilton moves across the globe, this man whose original identity has been eradicated, begins to form another self. Chilton tells himself that “except for my somewhat destructive occupation, I was a pretty decent sort,” and really treads into unreliable narrator territory.  There’s a definite splitting as Chilton, the killer, morphs or at least reinvents himself as Peter Chilton, English gentleman of leisure and taste and even  the genteel, urbane Sir Peter Chilton at one point:

I stopped in at the Rizzoli Bookstore, which was wood-paneled and had a kind of English feel to it. Chilton seemed to fit in here. Wealthy snobs roamed about with their wealthy little shopping bags–Tiffany, Gucci, Bergdorf, Goodman, Bally. Fashionable foreigners jabbered to one another. I noticed a couple of well-dressed wops jawing away over some wop fashion magazines–they always sounded so damn dramatic, like ham actors. Calm down, I felt like telling them. How in hell can you get so worked up over a few dumb magazines? Chilton suddenly stepped in here. They’re always amusing these Italians, he thought, remembering his various trips to Rome and Venice. Spirited. Fun-loving. Yes, good old jolly Italians. You can always count on them when you’re feeling a little down.

As Peter Chilton fabricates an imagined life–complete with country estate, a posh flat in London, and a third home in Nice, he continues to absorb architectural facts and begins to feel the birth of an interest in art. How will the hit-man–a man who’s disinterested in everything and everyone align his old self with his new interests? Can both sides of this man live within one skin?

Look at these poor excuses for town houses, he thought, I thought, we both thought.

Copy courtesy of the publisher, Other Press, via netgalley. Read on my kindle

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The Killer is Dying by James Sallis

American crime author James Sallis is slated to cull a new slew of fans thanks to the upcoming release of the film, Drive , based on a novel of the same name. Sallis is best known for his Lew Griffin series novels, but Sallis’s latest,  The Killer is Dying is a stand-alone novel. The story is set in Phoenix, Arizona and focuses on three seemingly very different characters: Christian, a freelance contract killer, Sayles a middle-aged, depressed Phoenix detective, and Jimmie Kostof, a teenager who’s been abandoned by his parents. Ultimately A Killer is Dying is not about the solution of a crime, but the unsolved mysteries of life and the abyss of loneliness, death and despair we all face.

Christian, who advertises his services by placing and responding to ads in various known mercenary magazines, is in Phoenix to kill John Rankin, a pedestrian character who seems unlikely to offend anyone. Christian finds himself wondering why a man like  Rankin ends up at the wrong end of paid hit:

How this man could possibly be of such concern as to bring someone to engage his services, Christian can’t imagine–a nondescript office-dweller at a nondescript accounting firm in a featureless city where everything is dun-colored.

None of that is any concern of his. Interesting though that he thinks it.

Christian stalks his prey in order to stage the hit, but someone else gets there first. But there’s a problem; Rankin isn’t dead. He’s only wounded, and with cops sniffing around the crime, Christian should move on but he doesn’t.  To complicate matters, Christian, a papertrail “ghost”  who has left no traceable evidence of his existence on the planet, is dying, and he knows he has very little time left. So why spend what’s left on the Rankin hit? Is he motivated by professional pride, curiosity, a desire to finish what he started, or is there something deeper going on? 

Sayles and his partner, Graves begin investigating the shooting, and in another story thread, Jimmie, a teen abandoned by both of his parents, struggles to survive by trading items over the internet in order to raise a little cash. Jimmie is increasingly drawn to a blog site to read the mysterious comments of someone called Traveler. Jimmie has begun to experience intense and violent dreams–clips from the life of the hired contract killer, Christian:

Jimmie tried to remember if he had ever dreamed as someone else. Others in dreams changed, sure, the walk-ons, the companions, but weren’t people always themselves in their dreams?

We see clips from Christian’s earlier life, a strangely detached childhood and a violent stint in prison. Christian recalls some of the hits he made and the mysteries of the lives he brutally took. Similarly, Sayles recalls some of the crimes he’s covered in his career, the bodies of victims whose lives are violently interrupted and extinguished:

What you wound up remembering, what kept coming back to you, were not the whacked-out, bizarre crimes, the hatchet murders, the double homicides, bunco and bank jobs, but simple things. The look in a father’s eyes when you told him that his son had been killed while buying a Pepsi at the AM/PM on the corner. The trumpet case that had sprung open when its owner got shot in a drive-by, and you stood there noticing the way the bell of the horn was crumpled in on itself. The half-finished castle of building blocks in an abused child’s room. The suicide letter of words and phrases cut and pasted from favorite books, a crazy quilt of fonts and sizes, the books themselves put back in their places on the shelves.

These three characters, the contract killer, the cop and the abandoned teen,  physically connect in only the vaguest ways–one character will enter the screen as another leaves, or perhaps one character will pass another with just the barest acknowledgment, and yet the three men–all at different phases of their lives are inexplicably intertwined. Just as Jimmie has Christian’s dreams, there’s the idea of parallel lives crisscrossing through space with occasional moments that overlap. These metaphysical aspects of the novel (the shared dreams, collective unconscious, the comments by Traveler) serve to deepen the book’s sense of mystery and connection between the characters.

The novel goes back and forth between its three main characters. Jimmie struggles with loneliness, Christian digs into the truth behind the Rankin shooting, and Sayles, whose bleak home life includes a dying wife, can’t get the Rankin shooting out of his head. Perhaps Sayles’ fascination with the Rankin case is a much-needed distraction from his personal life, or perhaps he connects with Christian in ways he doesn’t understand.

A great deal of the novel maintains a dreamlike quality when describing the passage of everyday life:

He watched a bus disgorge its load of the last night folk heading home and replace them with those just beginning their day, wondering how many of them might be thinking about their lives , where they’d wound up, where they’d began, the curves and crooks and bland mystery of it all, all these Jonahs.

And again:

A bus comes by, one of those segmented doubles that looks like a worm. Space for, what, a hundred people within? With maybe a dozen heads afloat in the windows. Its sides bear banner ads for action movies and portraits of  local newscasters with too many teeth. He watches the bus work its cautious way around a corner.

Beautifully written, the novel maintains an almost dream-like pacing, and yet the novel itself is tightly-written–racking in at just 232 pages.  Not a word seems to be wasted, and although the book covers some emotionally devastating territory, Sallis’s tale is restrained and eloquent, and yet at the same time strangely disturbing.

Review copy courtesy of publisher.

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Savage Night: Jim Thompson (1953)

“With a dame like her, if she really liked you, you could practically throw away the brakes.”

Savage Night is the second title in the Jim Thompson noir fest. Although it’s not as successful a novel as The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night is still well-worth reading, and there are several reasons for that. More later.

The novel begins with the arrival of Charles Bigelow in Peardale, a small town in Long Island. It’s a drab place and in spite of the influx of students, the small town atmosphere dominates:

It was probably partly due to my mood, but the farther I got into Peardale the less I liked it. The whole place had a kind of decayed, dying-on-the-vine appearance. There wasn’t any local industry apparently; just the farm trade. And you don’t have commuters in a town ninety-five miles from New York City. The teachers’ college doubtless helped things along a little, but I figured it was damned little. There was something sad about it, something that reminded me of bald-headed men who comb their side hair across the top.

Before arriving in Peardale, Bigelow owned and operated a small service station in Arizona. Go back a little further, and Bigelow was a professional hitman who merits an entry in a true-detective magazine where he’s described as “the deadliest, most elusive killer in criminal history.” He’s in Peardale by order of The Man for a hit against Jake Winroy, a former Peardale barber before he landed in the big time and began handling the payoff for a“big horse-betting ring.” Following his arrest, Jake was in prison but he couldn’t take life behind bars and he started singing to the Feds. Now he’s out, back at home, back at the old family barber shop, waiting for the trial to begin in which he’s the star witness. Naturally Winroy is a nervous man. He knows that the mob will send a hit man; he just doesn’t know which direction he’ll come from.

Winroy’s sexy wife, Fay, used to the high-life but now cooling her heels in Peardale, has decided to rent rooms in their home to students in order to make a little money. Thanks to gossip combined with Winroy’s erratic (read drunken) behaviour, there are few takers. That brings us back to Bigelow. He arrives in Peardale with the backstory that he wants to return to college to ‘improve’ himself. Naturally, he needs a place to live, and rents a room from the Winroys. This gives him proximity to his victim.

Nothing goes as planned, and no one is quite what they seem. Bigelow’s fellow lodger is local entrepreneur, Kendall who occasionally engages in double speak. While Kendall seems to take an interest in Bigelow, is the interest rooted in something else?:

Kendall. Was he just a nice old busybody, a man who’d taken a fancy to me like a lot of elderly people had, or had The Man got to him? I couldn’t make up my mind about him. Twice now, well three times, I’d thought I had him figured. And each time, even now, right after he’d practically told me where I stood and handed me the deal on a platter, I began to doubt my figuring. I still wasn’t sure.

Kendall isn’t the only person who’s not quite what they seem. There’s also Jake Winroy’s wife, former night-club singer, Fay:

She had one of those husky well-bred voices–voices that are trained to sound well bred. One look at that frame of hers, and you knew the kind of breeding she’d had: straight out of Beautyrest by box-springs. One look at her eyes, and you knew she could call you more dirty words than you’d find in a mile of privies.

Although Bigelow is close enough to Winroy to perform a hit, there are a number of complications, and none of these make Bigelow’s job any easier. In fact as the weeks pass, he is increasing mired in the relationships he’s established in Peardale. He brags about being “pretty good at putting myself in the other fellow’s shoes,” and he almost immediately identifies with his victim, Winroy:

The poor bastard was kind of like me. He hadn’t been anything, but he’d done his damndest to be something.

Is Bigelow getting soft? Or is this faux-conscience just assassin foreplay?

Bigelow’s history is gradually revealed–a rootless, vulnerable childhood of poverty, and he bears the permanent mental and physical scars of these years. There are times when he evokes pity, but then just as that pity begins to sway the reader, Bigelow’s savagery eradicates any sympathy gained. Here he is on the subway:

There was a woman getting on, and I gave it to her in the breasts with my elbow, so hard she almost dropped the baby she was carrying. And she was lucky, too, but maybe the baby wasn’t. Maybe it would have been better off under the wheels. Everything ended.

Bigelow is only 5 foot tall, and that may make him seem an unlikely hit man (the first thing he does when he hits Peardale is buy a new pair of elevator shoes), but this also makes him appear less of a threat. He trusts a few of the wrong people, and he completely underestimates women. This underestimation is rooted in Bigelow’s self-image of himself as a ladies’ man. With his false teeth, contact lenses and elevator shoes, his so-called charming approach to women is slick and brutal. While women are Bigelow’s achilles’ heel, he also brags that old people like him for some reason, and the truth of that statement is revealed over the course of the novel. Bigelow, like Lou Ford, misjudges people’s reactions to him.

In Bigelow, there’s a self-loathing not far underneath the surface. While the action in Savage Night doesn’t seem as sick as twisted as that conducted by Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, Bigelow is deceptively evil. It begins with his physical stature and continues with his adopted persona.  His body is in a rapid state of decay, and the theme of decay runs throughout the novel–beginning with the description of the town of Peardale and Winroy’s house. This theme then continues with the rot and decay of Bigelow’s body and his decidedly unhealthy relationships with the two women in the Winroy house, hot-to-trot Fay and the deformed student/servant Ruthie. The rot and decay of Bigelow’s body is matched by his mind–although throughout the narrative he tortures himself by imagining ‘what might have been.’

The issue of the duality of human nature which appeared in The Killer Inside Me again appears in Savage Night. Whereas Lou, the central figure in The Killer Inside Me is the character who appears fragmented and leading two very specifically separate lives, in Savage Night, most of the characters seem to have some other game afoot. Bigelow is a nervous man, so for some time it’s not apparent just how much of this is his paranoia. Just as Winroy knows that there’s a hit directed his way, Bigelow knows that The Man isn’t playing straight with him. There are times when Bigelow, who dons the persona of the nice, open, generous-hearted college kid, reveals his true nature–at one point for example, he plots a murder while attending a church service. But Bigelow is a conflicted man, and this conflict is more that he hasn’t quite grasped or understood the various parts of his character rather than flashes of conscience. Also as the novel continues, Bigelow is seen as the quintessential unreliable narrator. Just how much can we trust what he says?

For this reader, Savage Night was not as well-crafted a novel as The Killer Inside Me. Bigelow is an horrific creation. For his cunning, his insanity, and his chilling approach to personal relationships, Lou Ford makes the all-time top list of fictional crime villains, but Charles Bigelow does not. Bigelow wonders if things could have been different. There are times when his interactions with others pierce through to his emotions; perhaps all these feeling are just temporary aberrations for a hit man who appears to be getting soft, but in the final judgement, Lou Ford trumps Bigelow in the evil, sick and twisted department.

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