HELL CHOSE ME, the latest novel by Derringer and Anthony Award nominee Angel Luis Colón, is an explosion of brutal wit and violent details, all told by self-loathing hit man Bryan Walsh.
Set in contemporary Bronx, moving between the past and the present, it’s a tense and intriguing thrill ride. Sure, we’ve met mordant, conflicted assassins before, like Lawrence Block’s Keller, Barry Eisler’s John Rain, or Bill Hader’s Barry. In Colón’s hands, Walsh hits familiar notes, but in a key all his own:
We’re at Jimmy’s Bar and Grill in the Bronx — all bar and no grill. A day-drinker’s paradise. Low light. Three televisions showcasing horse races. The smell of smoke and week-old beer. There’s a jukebox in the corner that’s seen better days. No surprise this is the place Charlie hangs his hat. He’s one of those sad cases you think only exist in TV or a movie. Had a good job and a family. Never made many waves. One day he falls in love with the horses and the next — well — the next day there’s divorce, bitterness, alcoholism, and a little over eighty large owed to some interesting people.
Me? I work for those interesting people.
Colón is the skilled and inventive author of dozens of short stories, two series, and the host of a podcast called the bastard title, all in the crime realm. Just as the reader settles comfortably into the rhythm of this genre, Colón hits us with a twist: after Walsh swiftly shoots Charlie in the arranged empty bar, the dead man’s ghost follows Walsh to his car, and becomes part of the collection of spectral memento mori that surround him after each hit.
Yep. His kills accompany him afterward, repeating the same last few words or sentences Walsh heard them speak before their deaths, in an eerie and unsettling way.
Charlie sits in his car, repeating over and over his last words, “I don’t know … little girl … please…” as Walsh heads home to Riverdale, waiting for Charlie to fade. Are these ghosts actually there? Or are they recriminating demons from his own mind? Walsh, and the reader, aren’t sure.
Once in his home in the Bronx, we watch as he feeds his cat — a souvenir of a previous hit and a byproduct of his code: “[N]o kids, no pets.” It’s hard not to like Walsh, with his combination of bravado and bitterness while staring reality in the face, even if that face has been mutilated by his own handiwork.
After Charlie’s hit, we watch Walsh try to collect his money from and get shorted by his handler, Paulie Gigante. Paulie runs the Rainbow Academy Daycare Center in the Bronx: “[S]pawn of the mafia glitterati […] Future paesan kings and Jersey Shore queens are being cultivated by a man who acts as a handler to most of the hit men in the Bronx and lower Yonkers.” The perfect, impenetrable front. Who’s going to risk killing these kids with a hit on Paulie? When the handler stiffs Bryan thousands of dollars, Paulie sets in motion the calamities to come.
The flashbacks, which jolt us out of the panic of his hardened present, reveal the strengths and weaknesses of our antihero: his unwelcome sensitivity, the cupidity of his mother, the suspect “patriotic” impulses of his Uncle Sean in Northern Ireland. All this information — casually yet tautly revealed — becomes deeply relevant to how this story unfolds in the present. Early on in the novel we are given a memory from his teenage years, when his grandfather gave him some advice back in Ireland:
“Bryan, one day you’ll understand that sometimes life puts you in a place where you do something wrong and while everything inside you tells you not to do it.”
“So why not do what’s right? You’re always telling me that.”
He smiled at that. “Yeah, I do, don’t I? Still, it’s more complicated as you find yourself getting older. You’ll end up in a place where you have a choice and the best one isn’t always the right one. Even for your kin.” There was a finger of whiskey left in a bottle left on the table. He picked it up and sucked it down greedily.
“What if you’re doing it for the right reason?” I cocked my head to the side.
Grandpa shrugged. Gave me a pat on the back. “Then it isn’t so bad, I guess. But sometimes you’ll still find yourself doing wrong for wrong. Be it for fun or an easier way out of a bad situation.”
“What do you do then?”
He looked away. “You deal with it. You face that mistake and concede that hell chose you to work its benefit.”
So what’s a nice kid like him doing in a murderous present like this? The short story: He’s killing a mounting number of small-time hoodlums in order to pay for the medical care of his vegetative brother, in the hopes that one day Liam will wake up. The long story is, well, a long story with its roots and tentacles in Ireland after he’s gone AWOL from his Marine Corp gig in Kuwait.
We follow Bryan as he makes the best of bad situations, and watch as things only get worse. There’s collateral damage with a hit he picked up to pay Liam’s medical bills. Turns out the victim, now another ghost keeping Bryan company, was the son of the mafia don, Paulie’s boss. Upon his murder, the underworld forces who hired and kept him are out for his blood. The witty, ragged hit man with an instinct for the neighborhoods, hooligans, and the law finds himself in one doomed position after another.
This novel snaps, crackles, and explodes in surprising places. Swift and stylish, balanced by well-timed backstory, it tells a riveting, rollicking tale, shifting to the past, giving us insights into Bryan’s life, his time in the service, Ireland, and his family — the frustrated dynamics, their Irish roots, and the connection to his present situation.
The situation becomes ever more complicated for Walsh: as he attempts to protect his brother, he is abducted by two militant and murderous women, another pair of professional killers. We find out how and why he’s estranged from his brother, their pre-coma last words to each other, and the murderous details of his first kill in Ireland.
Angel Luis Colón does a tremendous job here, keeping us rooting for this absolute nut cake. With countless bodies on Bryan’s ledger, we still bite our nails to the end of the saga. Will Walsh make it out alive? That’s part of the novel’s tension, because despite or because of how loathsome this protagonist is, we find ourselves cheering him on, rooting for his success, stunned by his violence, and impressed by his improvisational survival tactics. And deep down, we dread the end of the story, worried about this complicated character’s chances of survival.
As Walsh mulls over retelling a family story, we hear the writer’s voice: “Because what’s the use in telling a story if the listener isn’t going to become a part of it — become completely engrossed in the single time and place you’re bringing them?” On this metafictional scale Hell Chose Me succeeds spectacularly: it is utterly engrossing and riveting. With hints of Ken Bruen in mayhem, music, and violence, this novel is chilling and thrilling from beginning to end.