Billy Summers is a different type of Stephen King book. Not horror. Not supernatural. Not Sci Fi. Not even suspense (although it was certainly tense in parts). Nevertheless, I absolutely loved it and it will undoubtedly occupy my thoughts for weeks and months to come.
As the title suggests, the book is essentially a character study of Billy Summers, an assassin, and tells the story of his life, his motivations, and his last job. It is slow and patient at first (like Billy himself) but gathers momentum as the story progresses. It contains a number of satisfying twists and turns that take the story (and Billy) in new and unexpected directions. It is full of pathos with a thread of deep sorrow running through it. I never wanted it to end.
What I liked.
I loved the characters. Billy is a complex and troubled man but is fundamentally decent and extremely likeable. He had a difficult childhood and is haunted by the traumatic memories of his experiences as a war veteran in Iraq. Alice, who we meet halfway through the book, is adorable and the relationship that develops between them feels exactly right. I also loved Bucky, Billy’s wise old friend and assistant.
I liked the first third of the book when Billy lives undercover in a small American town as he prepares for the “hit” but can’t help getting close to his workmates, and his neighbours and their children. This toe-dip into the normal world is tinged with regret as he knows they will be hurt and disappointed when they inevitably find out who he really is.
I loved the introduction of Alice and the relationship that developed between them in the second third of the story. I wasn’t expecting it and was worried about what it would mean for Billy and his plans, but enjoyed the way things worked out between them.
I liked the final, action packed third of the book, which felt both authentic and believable. If we hadn’t already learned what a calm and capable professional Billy was, his achievements in terms of facing up to different groups of rapists, armed killers, and all-round baddies, might have seemed implausible.
I liked the way Billy started writing as his cover story for the job but how it came to mean much more to him than that, and was ultimately the main way that the reader learned the tragic story of his childhood and the horrors of his time in Iraq.
I liked “dumb” Billy, the persona he adopted to, conversely, maintain the intellectual upper hand with the criminals he worked for.
I loved the veiled reference to The Overlook Hotel, the site of which could be seen from Bucky’s cabin, and the spooky picture in the shack where he writes some of his book.
The book was littered with truisms and subtle current political and ideological references. I loved the little references to the, as yet unknown, pandemic that was about to hit the world.
The quote “Substance abuse goes with talent, you know” really resonated with me.
What I didn’t like.
I didn’t like the way Mr. King almost broke my heart by presenting us with two different endings to the story. One written by Alice on Billy’s behalf, and then the real one that she tells Bucky after Billy’s book is finished.