IT BEGINS in the desert, the way all good thrillers should, with a mysterious phone call: “There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to disappear.” The man on the receiving end of the call is Stephen Sutler, an English contractor working in the burning wastes of the Iraqi desert for HOSCO (Hospitality and Operational Support Company), a shadowy many-tentacled multinational. He is told to go to the local HOSCO office. When he gets there, a bomb explodes, nearly killing him and wiping out the company’s financial records. Sutler realizes he’s been set up. He escapes from the compound and makes his way across the Iraqi desert, through Syria, and over into Turkey. He sees a newspaper with his face on it. It says that he is wanted for the theft of 50 million dollars.
Richard House’s huge and hugely ambitious The Kills has, somewhat surprisingly, the setup of a Lee Child or Tom Clancy novel. Predictably, it caused ripples of controversy in the United Kingdom when it was long-listed for the Booker Prize. This is par for the course when anything resembling a crime novel or thriller sneaks its way onto the list. Also predictably, because of this prejudice British novelists who want to be taken seriously have, for the most part, tended to shy away from genre fiction. It seems a peculiarly British reaction — American literary fiction has always borrowed from genre to great effect. In recent years, some of America’s most respected writers have intuited that the literary novel’s engagement with the crime novel is, perhaps, the way into the future. Cormac McCarthy (always a fan of genre writing, be it western or horror) wrote a gnomic noir in No Country for Old Men (while his 1973 gothic shudder of a novel, Child of God, can be viewed as a stripped down Red Dragon precursor); Thomas Pynchon gave us his Chandler-on-acid romp, Inherent Vice, and Denis Johnson the cool and precise heist thriller Nobody Move. Even Donna Tartt, in the last 200 pages of The Goldfinch, isn’t averse to borrowing classic crime fiction tropes.
House is one of the few British writers taking on the challenge of constructing a literary novel through the prism of a crime novel. Or rather, in his case, several crime novels, as The Kills is composed of four separate but loosely interconnected novellas. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 strikes me as its closest analogue, another long book composed of disparate parts held together by the gravitational pull of a crime that plays off-screen. Like Bolaño, House is an expert in setting up tropes and then abandoning them. This proves to be both The Kills’s strength and its weakness.
The first book, “Sutler,” is the closest to being a straight thriller. Sutler is both literally and figuratively a cipher. His real name is John Jacob Ford, but, due to Byzantine company policy, he’s taken on the alias of Sutler: “While Sutler and Ford were one and the same person, he’d noticed a growing number of differences, most of them small.” He is presented as a mid-level bureaucrat lost in a labyrinth of his own making. He hitches rides through the bloodlands of the Middle East and crosses into Turkey, where a pair of German journalists pick him up. There are flashes of Paul Bowles and Graham Greene in these early scenes, a bewilderment and menace in strange and dismal backwaters, as Sutler dodges the journalists’ increasing curiosity and settles into a backpacker’s hostel in a dusty border town. There he befriends a young American climber, Eric, and his two companions, and the novel suddenly snakes into Patricia Highsmith territory. House makes you question every character, every interaction and intention — he uses the crime novel’s singular attention to language and its polysemic possibilities to create a suffocating sense of suspense. Eric is fascinated by a book called The Kill, about two brothers who read a book about a murder in a Naples basement and travel to that city to recreate it. When Eric disappears and the local police start taking an interest in the hostel’s residents, Sutler flees to Istanbul, a hunted man, his face on a thousand TV screens. He ends up in Germany, broke, driving hire cars across the flat, gray autobahns, lost to himself and to the world around him.
“The Massive,” the second novella, is the most successful and works as a sort of prequel to “Sutler.” The first 20 pages detail the postwar deaths due to toxic poisoning of the group of men tasked to work at Camp Liberty in Iraq where Sutler was also stationed. House creates a surreal, Mesopotamian Catch-22 as he follows these invisible contractors across the peripheries of the conflict. After narrating their deaths, House rewinds to show us their lost and drifting lives before they joined HOSCO. Paralyzed by debt, fear, and unrelenting futures, they are easily recruited to do dirty work in the desert. Their job in Iraq is to man the burn pits, to incinerate every piece of trash that American soldiers produce, from toilet paper to KFC cartons to spent ammunition. This is the only overtly political section of this acutely political book, and also the funniest. House focuses on the quotidian drudgery of war as Heller does — the long hours under the relentless sun, the smell of the pits, the boredom, bad luck, and endless waiting. Surrounding this and giving it context is a thread of financial misappropriation and the shell game of corporate restructuring. House skillfully demonstrates how war is often nothing more than business conducted by other means.
The third novella, “The Kill,” signals a shift in narrative focus. We are no longer in Iraq but in a dark and dingy Naples, and this is no longer a story about war but about murder. We are never certain whether House’s “The Kill” is the same book Eric and other characters are fixated on throughout the preceding 500 pages. As in the book previously described, two brothers rent a basement in Naples. They hire a Polish immigrant, Marek, to prepare the room. They make him soundproof the basement and put up plastic sheeting. Marek, desperate for work, does not question their strange requests. The two brothers are obsessed with a book (also called The Kill) about a real-life murder in Naples — the story of a man who stages a fake killing to get revenge on wartime collaborators. The two brothers decide to recreate their own version of the book; when Marek comes back from a weekend away he finds the basement drenched in blood and a severed tongue left in a plastic bag by the door. Marek, like Sutler and the contractors at Camp Liberty, quickly realizes his financial need and unquestioning following of orders has made him complicit in larger crimes.
The narrative then switches to Finn, an American college sophomore with a book deal to write a true-crime version of The Kill killings. This is narratively the weakest section of The Kills but the most intriguing conceptually, House switching between myriad points of view. House isn’t much interested in plot; despite its surface resemblance to a crime novel, “The Kill” is much more concerned with character. House seems to be saying that we are all accomplices in our own downfalls, that victims are victims because there is something in their psychology that makes them so, neatly echoing the silent collusion of the burn pit workers in “The Massive”and Sutler’s own acquiescence in his story.
The final novella, “The Hit,” is set in Cyprus and follows a hired assassin closing in on someone presumed to be Sutler. We never find out whether he has the right man, and the novel ends on a note of uncertainty. The Kills also comes with related multimedia pieces available on a dedicated website: short films of landscape and snippets of conversation. While they’re pretty to look at, they don’t add anything to the novel.
House is an extremely talented writer and the ambitious scope and structure of The Kills marks it far above most recent British literary fiction. The sentences are rich with detail and nuance (House’s debt to DeLillo is obvious on almost every page), but his tone is flat and arid. You miss those moments of electric leaping sensuality that sporadically erupt in DeLillo or Pynchon or McCarthy. This flatness can make the novel seem boring, but only in the way Robbe-Grillet or Tarkovsky can be considered boring.
Yet, despite being more interested in systems than personal relationships, House has conjured up a fascinating cast of flawed men, lost women, and misfits. These are the people central to the novel’s core thesis — how any crime, from murder to war, needs not only its main actors but also its bit players, the bureaucrats, accountants, caterers, and manual workers who make the larger conspiracy possible.
There is, however, something ultimately frustrating about the novel. House employs every crime trope he can think of — from the man on the run to tourist noir to the locked room, but, rather than overturn and deconstruct these tropes, he abandons each one. It’s as if he’s worried The Kills will be read as a thriller rather than a literary novel. This feels like a cop-out, as the true genre-crossing novel succeeds as both crime novel and literary novel. The Kills has none of the deductive logic and ambiguity of the crime novel, nor are there moments of genuine suspense or revelation. But perhaps House isn’t trying for that — maybe he wants to ask what we, as readers, require from the novel? Is he saying in real life stories have no ending? That our desire for closure and meaning are chimeras? Without a doubt. But by denying us these very things in The Kills he is also reducing the novel’s scope and impact. It makes me wonder whether there is a close relation to Poe’s law (which states that unless you make the intent obvious, a text parodying extremism, for instance, can easily be taken for extremism) applicable to literature, whereby showing a particular thing — say boredom, or meaninglessness — you end up reproducing that very thing. But these are small concerns and minor niggles. Any novel that makes you ask these questions, that probes the possibilities of genre and form and stretches itself out into the world is to be welcomed. Despite its flaws, The Kills, with its ambition, linguistic stylization, and global reach, is exactly the kind of novel the Booker Prize (and the reading public) needs.