Chris Holm can't leave well enough alone. His Collector trilogy — The Big Reap, The Wrong Goodbye, and Dead Harvest — might have worked fine as good ol' retro-noir. Instead he jabbed a dose of eerie urban fantasy into the series, resulting in a grim, imaginative take on the detective yarn.
Holm's new novel, The Killing Kind, is similarly restless. But there's no fantasy, urban or otherwise, in it. What makes the book sing is not some shotgun marriage of genres — this is a thriller, plain and simple — but its lean action, breakneck execution, and a nervy concept that's almost too perfect: Protagonist Michael Hendricks is a hit man who only hits other hit men.
Michael is a former black-ops sniper who was presumed dead after a top-secret mission in Afghanistan goes tragically wrong. He can't tell his wife Evie that he's still alive, so she remarries and moves on with her life. Meanwhile Michael returns to the U.S. and lives off the grid. Aided by the only other survivor of his black-ops unit, computer whiz Lester Meyers, he starts preying on those who prey on others — for a price. "Couldn't help but try to make things right, one murder at a time," Lester observes of Michael. As an antiheroic code, it's chilling. But it propels the plot through a deliciously murky web of moral ambiguity and tragic compromise — especially after Michael's latest target, a man who embezzled money from the supermob known as The Council, brings him in contact with other cold-blooded assassins (not to mention an embattled FBI agent with secrets of her own).
Okay, so maybe there's a little fantasy to The Killing Kind. But the book's ever-so-slightly outlandish setup falls squarely within the parameters of the thriller, and Holm exploits that sense of heightened reality to its fullest. In a way, Holm is tapping into a similar internal conflict — and a similar premise — as Jeff Lindsay's Dexter books. Only, instead of a serial killer hunting other serial killers, it's an assassin hunting other assassins, with all the tension that entails.
And Holm doesn't pass up a chance to make things tenser and tenser. As the plot draws tightly around Michael, he's forced to brush up against the limits of his moral code — although one of the book's weaknesses is its hero's failure to confront the paradox of his own existence. He's not given as much page time as he needs — not that Holm's throwaway characters, such as a down-on-his-luck ventriloquist eking out a miserable living on the dive-bar circuit, aren't compelling enough to warrant books of their own — and that means Michael winds up feeling slightly flat and underdeveloped. Holm touches on a few real-world issues, but the most glaring one, the rise of mass shootings in the U.S., is barely acknowledged — which is a missed opportunity to put just a bit more meat on The Killing Kind's already formidable bones.
The Killing Kind is a brutal book about brutal people in a brutal world. In one heart-stopping scene, one of Michael's rival killers, Leon Leonwood, justifies his readiness to assassinate children by explaining, as if from a position of mercy, that "the world's no place for innocents." For all its violence and darkness, though, the book has plenty of sly humor, sharp dialogue, and even the occasional yanked heartstring. And there's a rhythm to it, relentless and breathtaking, that helps make up for the relative shallowness of the main character — something a few much-needed sequels might also fix.
Jason Heller is a senior writer atThe A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.