‘Billy Summers’ by Stephen King – highly recommended

‘Billy Summers’ gave me something that I’ve been waiting for: the opportunity to read a Stephen King novel that has no supernatural elements in it (well, apart from an Easter Egg for readers of ‘The Shining’ and ‘Doctor Sleep’ that was just a minor unexplained puzzle to Billy). It was an opportunity to see what Stephen King does with a different genre.

The answer, as I expected, was that he delivered a clever, engaging, accessible story that is full of relatable moments of humanity and plot twists that I didn’t see coming. I found myself reading the book eagerly and enjoying it effortlessly. Yet, even as I read it, I was aware of the cleverness of the structure and the quality of the writing.

This novel is the story of Billy Summers. It’s wrapped around the frame of a one-last-job-gone-wrong/vengeance-for-betrayal trope which acts as a trellis for Billy’s story to grow against and to allow us to see Billy and to allow Billy to see himself.

I imagine Stephen King starting this book with three questions:

  • How do I get the readers to care about what happens to a man who has made his career working for the mob assassinating men he’s never met?
  • What sort of experiences, attitudes and personality traits lead a man to become a good assassin and enable him to be good at it?
  • How can I get a new twist on the one-last-job-gone-wrong trope?

Billy Summers isn’t an easy man to like. It’s not just that he chooses to make his living killing people for money (yeah. yeah, they’re all bad people – there’s ethics for you. He shoots people like himself) it’s that Billy,or at least the Billy we meet at the start of the book, is a man who has spent much of his life pretending to be someone else and keeping people at a distance.

We see Billy pretending to be a little slow so that his clients will respect his technical competence in a sort of on-the-spectrum way but will never see him as a threat. We see him pretending to be a nice guy, being the sort of neighbour you like to have a beer with, that you invite to family barbecues, who you are even happy to let play with your kids. Billy fakes being kind of man it’s easy to trust and it’s easy for a little girl to get her first crush on. And all the while, he’s biding his time, waiting for his target to arrive in this sleepy little town so Billy can shoot him through the head with a sniper rifle.

To make Billy someone I care about, King has to get past the pretending and let us see the real Billy. The Billy who is still Billy when no one is watching.

King does this in part by letting us hear Billy’s descriptions of people and places. When Billy describes

the house rented by the mobster Billy is working for, we get this:

‘The house is also lit, the better to show off its wretched excess. To Billy, it looks like the bastard child of a supermarket and a megachurch. This isn’t a house, it’s the architectural equivalent of red golf pants.’

These are not the thoughts of a stupid man and they put some distance between the venal vulgarity of Billy’s employers and Billy own, more down to earth, tastes.

Then King shows us that Billy understands that he’s been cast as the lead in one of those ‘One Last Job’ movies where something always goes wrong. This is the beginning of turning Billy from assassin to victim. You find yourself hoping that somehow Billy will find a way out of the trap that has been set for him. If he does, you know it will be something clever that requires calm courage to carry off and you just know you’ll cheer for him if he manages it.

King doesn’t stop there. He wants us to care about Billy because we know who he is, how he came to be that way, and what he’s going to do about it. In a move that I think was inspired, King doesn’t take the usual route and achieve this by telling Billy’s story in two inter-cut timelines: Now and Earlier. Billy’s cover story for being in town is that he’s writing a novel. King has Billy write an autobiography.

This gives us the two inter-cut timelines but it gives us a lot more. We see Billy confront his past and ask himself questions about his present. We share his discovery of what writing is like for those who find themselves being called by a compulsion to write. It establishes Billy’s voice and it provides a great backstory delivered in slices that both increase the tension and deepen our understanding of and sympathy for Billy. As Billy gives himself up to the flow experience of writing, when hours flash by unnoticed, he discovers that as memories are turned into a narrative they take on a voice of their own and that voice insists on truthfulness from the writer.

By this point, I couldn’t see Billy as a paid killer anymore. I knew his story. I saw Billy as… well, Billy and I wanted him to escape the trap he knew he was in, to survive and become someone better than he had been.

As the One Last Job trope played out, it didn’t come across as a thriller or a clever heist story, although it was both those things. It came across as Billy’s struggle for survival. The plot twists are clever and surprising but the best part was that the story was told with such skill that every scene shone as I read it and rested in my imagination like a memory.

Then, when I was most of the way through the book and thought I knew how this last-job-gone-wrong tale would unfold but was wondering why there were still so many pages left, King threw someone new into the mix and everything changed.

I won’t reveal the plot but the tone of the change was to make me wonder about, maybe even hope for, Billy having a better future.

The last part of the book, would, if it was a normal One Last Job story, be about Billy getting revenge on the people who laid a trap for him. King makes it into more than that. It becomes about Billy deciding who he is going to become and what his future might be, which gives revenge a different energy.

Towards the end of the book, I made the mistake of thinking Stephen King had stumbled in Billy’s narrative. The tone was slightly off and the route taken was too Jack Reacher. I should have known better. It was another of those twists that I didn’t see coming.

I listened to the audiobook, expertly narrated by Paul Sparks and I recommend it. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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