In Review

In review: Billy Summers by Stephen King

King’s noirish thriller is his ‘best book in years’

Stephen King will always primarily be known as a horror novelist, said Neil McRobert in The Guardian. Yet his best recent books have been those in which “the ghosts are packed away and the monsters are all too human”. And the 73-year-old’s latest novel – a noirish tale, without a hint of the supernatural, about an assassin doing “one last job” – is his “best book in years”.

Billy, an ex-army sniper turned killer-for-hire, moves to a city in an unspecified southern US state, after being contracted to kill a small-time crook. While waiting for his shot, he passes himself off as a writer – a role he embraces so enthusiastically that he even “fills his time with writing his life story” (excerpts of which are reproduced).

The result is a somewhat meandering tale that “pays only the scantest regard to the rules of narrative structure”. Yet King is “so good at character and making us care” that it grips all the way to its “biblical climax”.

Although Billy Summers starts out seeming “easy to pigeonhole”, it turns into a “dazzlingly shape-shifting novel”, said John Dugdale in The Sunday Times. Halfway through, Billy encounters a rape victim – whereupon he transforms into a Jack Reacher-like figure, “righting wrongs via extrajudicial violence”. The shift is handled with “unshowy aplomb”.

This is a book with “designs on readers’ heartstrings as well as their adrenal glands”, said Jake Kerridge in The Daily Telegraph. Ultimately, its true subject is Billy’s quest to “redeem himself by trying to become a decent man”. There’s something implausible (not to mention sentimental) about the idea of a hitman going “full White Knight” – but it is made credible by King’s “storytelling genius”.

Hodder 432pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

Stephen King
The Week Bookshop

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