Do assassins make great authors? It would be fascinating to read their stories, who they’ve taken out, and perhaps they could even explain how they got into the business in the first place. You know, provide some sort of backstory that helps people understand them more. It’s the exciting proposition the master of horror himself, Stephen King — known for The Shining, IT, Misery, Mr. Mercedes Trilogy — presents us in his latest thriller, Billy Summers, a sniper assassin with literary aspirations who gets himself into trouble when his last job goes sideways.
Billy Summers has run into a bit of a problem. All he has to do is assassinate a bad man who checks all the immoral boxes in Summers’ mind. Even though he already has a bad feeling about the job — any last assassination job always tends to go wrong — $2 million is too good to pass up and he wants to retire. The other part about the job that makes him hesitate is the long wait time — three months in a neighborhood, pretending to be your average guy. But the best part about his cover? He gets to be a writer trying to meet a deadline, and Summers is surprised to learn he’s actually excited to write a book.
Everyone involved is reliable because Summers has worked with them before. All except for one guy who seems incompetent and continues to call Summers by his real name. Despite his misgivings, Billy does what he’s paid to do: kill bad people. The assassination goes off without a hitch, thanks to Summers’ background as one of the best military snipers out there. But along with all his military training, he can’t ignore the bad tingling sensation on the back of his neck…he’s about to get screwed and needs a backup plan.
Thankfully, Summers listens to his instincts and doesn’t go along with the escape plan Nick Manarian, the guy who hires him, creates. Billy knows it’s all a setup and, had he gone along with the plan, he’d likely be be six feet under. Good thing Summers has always had his ‘dumb self’ in place to make sure no one would ever believe he could discover the well-laid trap for him. Billy puts his backup plan into action and slips out under everyone’s noses. He survives, thinking the money will arrive in his bank account in no time.
But, the money never shows. And that makes Summers angry because he finished the job perfectly. The longer he waits for things to settle, the more he’s plotting to get what he deserves from the man who hired him. However, as he’s waiting one rainy night, three guys dump an unconscious young woman right outside his doorsteps. This is not how it’s supposed to go. This time, Billy knows he has to save her or else police will come looking for witnesses. His one good deed leads him down a path of saving grace, forgiveness, and retribution.
King is the ‘king’ of these types of character-driven novels, crafting a story within a story. He knows how to feed you information, bit by bit, luring you in and enveloping you in a narrative that is simple yet still manages to amaze. There are a few parts that lag but it’s become a part of King’s charm. I love the idea of a sniper who’s excited about posing as a writer but ends up actually writing his life story. We get a chance to see what’s beyond the high-powered rifle, see the human beneath, and understand what led him down the path to become a killer in the first place.
It never ceases to amaze me how King manages to present a plot and then turn it on its head. Billy Summers takes you behind the scenes of a sniper assassin, both inside his mind and his actions, showing us how important it is to listen to our instincts, and how it’s not always wise to deal with shady people in the first place. But in the end, learning more about Summers’ backstory lets us know that not all killers are painted in black and white — there’s plenty of room for grays, especially when it comes to taking out bad people.