The title character of prolific author Stephen King’s latest book is a hitman who only takes jobs in which the target is a “bad” person. Having fallen into the profession after serving in Iraq, he has grown weary of it when he is contacted about a job that offers a large enough payout for him to retire. There is a catch of course, the mark is in prison in California, awaiting extradition on more serious charges in the South, and Billy will have to take up occupation under an assumed identity there until his target arrives for arraignment, which could take months or even years. Despite the major time commitment, and all the little things that seem “off” about the assignment, he agrees to go through with it, and begins living as first-time author David Lockridge, getting friendlier with the locals than he probably should and actually beginning to write his life story.
This being a King novel it should come as no surprise that things don’t exactly work out to plan, but where it does differ from most of his work is that it is really a straight-forward suspense novel, eschewing the majority of the usual horror trappings and containing the supernatural content to a few passing references to the Overlook Hotel of The Shining. Whether that was done in an attempt to reach a broader audience or just because it’s the story he was looking to tell is something that only he can say, but it has resulted in one of the strongest entries in his recent string of very strong books.
His signature straightforward but descriptive text makes it easy to envision the people and places, and his skill at ratcheting up the tension is virtually unparalleled. While he does offer up his usual bits of folksy wisdom, gone are most of the anachronistic, dated slang terms that he sometimes relies on too heavily. Billy is possibly one of the best characters that King has ever written, and one can’t help but root for him through all the twists, turns, and traumas of his life. While comparatively light on gore, there is still a pulpy luridness to the story at times, though it feels appropriate for the type of novel this is. The criminal underworld isn’t known for its wholesome characters after all, with Billy himself probably about as close as someone in that field can get. A late career best from one of America’s biggest writers, that will keep readers turning the pages all the way to the satisfying conclusion. ★★★★★
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★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor