Three books in and Owen Laukkanen is already perilously close to cliche. A recent graduate of the John Sanford-approved sausage factory of serialized fiction, he writes in a style that would be acceptable on cable television shows like Law & Order and NCIS; stories almost entirely in action verbs and cliches. In his fictional world characters come and go, leaving little trace behind them, reacting to situations and plots entirely without the granular detail that makes such things so delicious.
Kill Fee, the third in his expanding Stevens and Windermere series, is everything fans of his previous two books should expect, and nothing more. The two headliners would be FBI Special Agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota State Investigator Kirk Stevens, the series’ requisite mix-matched pair of conflicting personalities that somehow manage to overcome light physical, cultural, and generational differences to catch the villains. They’re pastiche amalgamations in every way possible, and I almost feel obligated to let you know that Windermere is a beautiful African American, while Stevens is a middle-aged family man, because those things seem to be important character distinctions.
Likewise, the plot also seems lifted from the basic template of his last effort, Criminal Enterprise, but with enough plot elements reskinned to make the end result seem fresher than it actually is. Michael Parkerson, a successful family man and weapons contractor for the US government, decides to add some excitement to his life (and pad his bank account) by creating Killswitch, a clandestine online organization using the web to contract – what else? – killings between clients and their unsuspecting victims.
Parkerson recruits his assassins by kidnapping trauma-laden vets from a local VA, detaining them in shady cabin in the woods, subjecting them to Clockwork Orange-style brainwashing to turn them into ruthlessly efficient killing drones. Once successfully programmed, these ‘assets’ are sent into the wild to eliminate targets, dispassionately and often without any thought to what they’re doing. Killswitch assassins can strike anywhere, anytime, with the organization blurring any connections between them.
As Windermere and Stevens track investigate these seemingly unrelated murders a pattern starts to emerge, and it won’t be long before the two partners crack the code. Enter a sexy new FBI agent for added flavor and you’ve got a whole new angle to help distract readers from a plot that defies reality and common sense, a good thing considering how preposterously impossible the thing would be as Laukkanen lays it out.
I’m beginning to suspect that being a Laukkanen fan requires a Herculean sized suspension of disbelief about minute detail, as trying to imagine a complex murder-for-hire scenario run the way it’s portrayed here might require some mythological intervention.
Anyone remotely familiar with even a surface familiarity with the ‘hidden internet’ will groan at how such an enterprise (a criminal enterprise, if you will) like Killswitch is explained here. The use of familiar terms like “IP Address” and “VPN” belies a total and complete misunderstanding of how such things work, and explanations of how Parkerson casually logs into his online death portals are laughably inaccurate. I’m not asking for a Tom Clancy amount of technical specificity, but is it too much to ask for something more than a superficial outline?
More egregiously is the portrayal of the effects of mental illness, specifically how returning vets suffering from the effects of PTSD might conceivably make them pliable patsies in Parkerson’s sick game of assassination-for-hire. Descriptions, insight, or explanations of the machinations of this bizarre enterprise are completely non-existent, minus talk of waste buckets, loud screaming, and hamburgers. It’s one thing to think of ‘cool’ ideas for a fiction thriller, but Laukkanen doesn’t seem to understand how such things work, and the result is less insulting than just embarrassing.
As inconsequential and trite his characters and plotting are, at least Laukkanen is a concise, clean writer. Chapters come at you fast and quick, almost none longer than a single page (and several far shorter than that), keeping the action bits coming fast and lean. His style may be the problem, however, as the machine gun-style pace doesn’t allow for detailed analysis or anything resembling an understanding of the material above the most superficial level. Kill Fee isn’t a bad book, but it’s not a very good one either. It just exists, and nothing more.