The Allure of the Irredeemable: An Interview with Chris Holm
By Angel Luis ColónSeptember 25, 2015
ALREADY A WELL-ESTABLISHED novelist and short story writer in the world of crime fiction, Chris Holm makes his mainstream thriller debut this month with The Killing Kind, a novel about a hit man with interesting quarry: other hit men.
Deftly written and with a blistering final act that begs to be read in a single sitting, The Killing Kind is the kind of novel ripe to push Holm forward as a new and powerful voice in thrillers.
Holm, who grew up steeped in crime fiction — doesn’t hurt to be in a family with a heavy law enforcement background — and was once a molecular biologist during his time as a working writer, brings an interesting voice and style that clearly draws from those influences. In short, the man knows how to write a scene with a gun and also knows a little more about what comes out of a human body when a bullet pierces through it than most writers out there.
I had the opportunity to pick Holm’s brain about his new book, The Killing Kind, and a few other bits and pieces via email (some answers may be edited for clarity).
ANGEL LUIS COLÓN: First of all, congratulations on the release of The Killing Kind. I remember reading the story it was based on, “The Hitter,” which garnered you an Anthony Award nomination. Was it always the plan to expand on that piece?
CHRIS HOLM: Thanks! I wish I could claim I planned all this. But to be honest, not only did I never intend to expand upon the short story, I nearly didn’t write the short in the first place.
It started, as most of my stories do, as a scene running through my head as I drifted off to sleep. In this case, it was a man looking through the scope of a sniper rifle at a political rally in some nameless banana republic. Eyeing the politician at the podium with disdain. Lining up his shot. Pulling the trigger. And only then revealing that his target wasn’t the politician, but the assassin sent to kill him.
Who was this guy? Where’d he come from? How’d he wind up in this business? I had no idea, but I wanted to find out. Still, I hesitated. At the time, I was writing the second book in my Collector series, so starting a new novel was out of the question, and the idea felt too big for a short.
Then the recession hit. The company I worked for folded. I found myself jobless for the first time in my life since I was 16. It was agony being stuck at home, feeling worthless, and the walls closing in. So when a friend of mine — Steve Weddle, whose novel-in-stories, Country Hardball, is as fine a piece of writing as you’ll ever read — said he was launching a new magazine called Needle and asked if I’d write a longer piece to anchor their second issue, I said sure.
I wrote 11,000 words for free, with no idea if anyone would ever read them. Turns out, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Not only did folks seem to dig the story, its main character hasn’t shut up since.
In The Killing Kind, we’re introduced to Michael Hendricks — simply put: a hit man who kills other hit men. Now, there’s a rhyme and reason to it, and like most protagonists we’ve met in noir or suspense novels, it’s redemption. But to that point, do you believe that Hendricks is truly redeemable? His actions are still, in essence, selfish.
That question is the central tension of Hendricks’s story, and doubtless why I couldn’t leave the short well enough alone. While I’m proud of what “The Hitter” accomplished, both critically and from a narrative perspective, it didn’t answer the question to my satisfaction.
For a long time, the question that drove my writing was, “What makes an ostensibly good person do bad things?” But lately, I think that’s been supplanted by, “What’s the worst a person can be and still come back?” I’m also fascinated by an individual’s ability, or lack thereof, to achieve sufficient velocity to escape his or her own past. Hendricks — who went straight from the foster system to the military, where he discovered he had a knack for killing but not necessarily the stomach — affords me space to explore all three.
Is Hendricks redeemable? I’m not sure yet. But it seems to me that, either way, a life of violence is unlikely to be redeemed by more violence. Unfortunately for Hendricks — a few happy years with his ex, Evie, aside — violence is all he really knows. He has no other tools at his disposal.
And in keeping with that angle, Hendricks seems to be surrounded by people without much interest in redemption. Was it hard to work that in? What’s most challenging in providing a protagonist with an off-kilter moral center that, for the most part, needs to have the clearest moral center of the bunch?
It’s funny; with few exceptions — Thomas Harris, Chelsea Cain — stories about psychopaths aren’t really my thing. I’m curious about what motivates people to kill, and psychopaths require no motive — they’re simply wired wrong.
That put me in an odd position when I sat down to write The Killing Kind. I knew going in that I wanted to paint Hendricks as a violent, damaged man, haunted by the things he’s done — but I also wanted the audience to believe there’s a chance that he could be redeemed. So, by way of contrast, I set out to create an antagonist who was gleefully, sadistically irredeemable.
The result, Alexander Engelmann, is a bloodthirsty killer-for-hire possessing neither empathy nor humanity. And much to my surprise, I had more fun writing him than any other character I’ve created. I think that’s because, in a weird way, I can relate to him. Like me, he’s found a way to make a living doing what he loves. In his case, it’s killing. In mine, it’s making up stories in my pajamas.
That said, I’m not sure I’d agree that Hendricks has the clearest moral center of the bunch. It seems to me he’s a guy who wants to do good, but isn’t quite sure how. Charlie Thompson, the FBI agent hunting him, has a far stronger moral compass. That, too, is by design. I like the idea of writing a book — or series — in which “good guy” and “protagonist” are not synonyms.
Your past novels (the Collector trilogy) were a genre stew: equal parts Chandler, Gaiman, and King. The Killing Kind, while not necessarily a single genre book, does feel more focused. Did you set out to craft something that fit more definitively into a specific genre?
I was raised by genre nerds. My mom’s from a cop family, and passed along their endless appetite for crime fiction — procedurals, PI novels, thrillers, you name it. My dad’s from a family of fantasy and science fiction geeks. As a kid, it never occurred to me that those were different worlds with discrete fandoms, so I read them interchangeably, and wound up with a healthy dose of both.
In a way, I see The Killing Kind and the Collector trilogy as flip sides of the same coin. Both stem from my lifelong love of genre. Both are playful riffs on the tropes, themes, and archetypes I’ve internalized and largely adore. Both hopefully fall just shy of meta, because I don’t intend them to be winking or ironic in any way. But while the Collector series is a Frankenstein’s monster of my two great genre loves (three, if you count horror), The Killing Kind is a conscious attempt to restrict myself to one sandbox.
“Restrict.” That sounds like a bad thing. The truth is it’s anything but. As a writer, I love guidelines. Strictures. Limitations. They’re like a dare, sparking creativity and forcing me to improvise.
There’s also an intense attention to detail in this novel. Gun specs and movement — particularly during the action beats — are quite well written and manage to engage more than bog down. What was the process here; was it all just research?
Thanks! Nailing those details was important to me from the outset, because — to my mind — verisimilitude is a key component to a good thriller. The best thriller writers ooze authority about their chosen subject matter. Since my last series combined fantasy and old-fashioned crime pulp — two branches of fiction that place less value on plausibility — I felt as if the onus was on me to prove that I could hang.
The gun stuff was mostly research. I’m from a family of cops and hunters, so I’ve got more experience with firearms than many writers, I suppose. I’ve fired my share of handguns, rifles, and shotguns — even a suppressed MAC-10 once, at the police firing range. But I’m not really a gun guy. I don’t own one. I haven’t been shooting in decades. So I relied upon the internet’s help to get the details right. You wouldn’t believe how robust the online gun community is. They put us geeks to shame.
I recall you mentioning a ghost story in the cards a few years back. Is that still a possibility, or is Hendricks due for a quick reappearance? If so, will we see his future or his past? Both seem like interesting times to explore in his life.
I think that ghost story — which is my skewed take on a small-town murder mystery — will see the light of day eventually. I hope it does; I really dig it, and my agent does, too. But thus far, the response to The Killing Kind has been tremendous, so I expect my next book out will be a proper follow-up. As for where and when the story takes us, I won’t yet say — but it’s clear that if Hendricks wants any kind of future, he’ll have to find a way to come to grips with the sins of his past.
Angel Luis Colón’s Derringer Award–nominated fiction has appeared in multiple print and web publications. His reviews have appeared in My Bookish Ways, and he is an editor for Shotgun Honey, a flash-fiction website focused on noir, hard-boiled, and crime stories. His debut novella, The Fury of Blacky Jaguar, came out July 2015 from One Eye Press. Keep up with him at his site, angeluiscolon.com, or follow him on Twitter @GoshDarnMyLife.
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