The Kills: Sutler by Richard House

thekillsThe Kills (Sutler) by Richard House (Picador, August 5th, 2014)-The Kills is a novel in four parts (originally published as four stand-alone books in the UK), and that’s how I’m going to cover it, as much for my sanity as yours. I don’t mean that in a bad way, at all, but at more than 1,000 pages, The Kills could be called…intimidating. It’s certainly heavy. But don’t let that scare you away. Seriously, don’t, because after Sutler, I’m more than ready to dive into the next three books (The Massive, The Kill, and The Hit.) Sutler mainly covers the exploits of one man, John Ford (aka Sutler), who works for US contracting company HOSCO. He’s been ostensibly hired to help oversee the construction of a brand new city in Iraq, nicknamed The Massive (it’s also the title of the 2nd book). Saddam is dead, and it’s time to rebuild. Sounds all well and good on the surface, but when a lot of money goes missing, and Sutler is set adrift (and his departure isn’t without tragedy), with the promise of a hefty $250,000 payday, he sets his mind on distancing himself from the project, and holding onto the account numbers that he’ll need to transfer his money when he’s given the official go-ahead. Ford certainly isn’t out to make friends, but inevitably he does have some significant human contact, including a couple of rather bumbling (of the not so funny kind) journalists and a group of filmmakers , one of which is young Eric Powell, who has a few secrets of his own, and is drawn to Ford. Cat and mouse ensues when a man named Parson is hired to find Sutler. As Parson follows Ford’s rather dim trail, he starts to wonder just who it is that really hired him, and begins to suspect games are being played, so he begins a dangerous game of his own.

I like House’s style a lot, and while Sutler certainly has the meat of a crackling spy story, it also heads into existential territory and explores anonymity and boundaries of the literal and personal kind. Ford is persistently at war with himself. We’re never really sure what his real name is (all we really know is that it’s definitely not Sutler), and he finds that he’ll do things as Sutler that he’d never do as Ford, and he grapples with his sudden untethering, dreaming still of the regimented time he spent with HOSCO. House’s narrative is unsettling, and he seems to be able to extract the underlying menace in just about any situation, even the most ordinary-seeming gesture or conversation. There are a lot of very cool touches, and among the peril and chase, it’s the little things that stand out. This is good stuff here, and I can’t wait to see how all four books tie together. He’s certainly done some setting up of The Kill  in Sutler, with a book-within-a-book concept (murder and mayhem?), and before reading this, I really had no concept of what goes on behind the scenes with US contractors and the military projects they work on. It’s actually fascinating stuff, and although Sutler doesn’t leave off neatly, it left me melancholy, and intrigued, and more than ready for the next book. Next up: The Massive.

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