Richard House's Booker-longlisted "The Kills" is a collection of four related books, originally published in e-book format between February and June 2013. In some ways, the e-book format is the natural habitat for House's creation as it includes a largely optional multi-media component to the story. It is a hugely ambitious piece about money, murder, greed, stories and where things start and equally where, if ever, they end. Covering more countries than feature in Michael Palin's passport, the book starts with corruption and embezzlement in a US civilian company working in the re-building of Iraq, and ends with a kind of "Tales of the Unexpected" story in Cyprus having taken in a gruesome story of murder in Naples.
Before getting to the conventional book element of the project, it's worth covering the multi-media component. While I have not seen the e-versions I assume that the suggested points for watching or listening to the various elements is noted in the text, whereas with the hard copy, this is not the case. It is pointed out that the multi-media elements can be watched entirely separately, or not at all, as they are not in any way necessary to the story. In fact, they tend to fill in background stories of the characters. It's not the first book I've seen to introduce a multi-media element but the quality of the short films in particular is of the highest class. They would not look out of place in an installation in the Tate Modern. House also largely avoids the trap of giving either images or audio to characters - mostly but not entirely the narrative element is told in sub titles in the films - which can detract from the reading experience in the same way that films of much loved books are usually disappointing as they don't fit with our mental images. I have no doubt that this is an area that writers will explore more frequently as e-books gain market share and colour becomes the norm on devices. However, the fact that it is optional viewing rather highlights the point that it is far from essential and doesn't add greatly, if at all, to the book. I remain of the view that while it's interesting in theory, in practice the sense is that it's there because the technology allows it rather than because it serves the story. For all that, it's interesting to watch the clips as a stand alone if you have an interest in video art.
But back to the book. House is excellent at intricate interweaving of plot lines and very good at dialogue. He's less good at evoking place or character. The latter is, in some cases I suspect, wholly intentional as one of the points he appears to be making is that we impose stories on people. Certainly the most interesting characters remain almost wholly unknown to the reader which can be a little frustrating. In a book of this length and complexity, it is perhaps futile to look for clear themes, but as well as events repeating and the search for a beginning and end to stories, there is also a sense that people who behave like victims will become victims. And you don't want to be a victim in House's world as the murder rate is higher than in the complete works of Shakespeare.
The first book, "Sutler" has Stephen Sutler on the run in the Middle East and Europe, suspected of absconding with $53 million of US investment in re-building Iraqi infrastructure. Whilst on the run, he meets Eric, a young student obsessed with a book he is reading. While on the surface, "Sutler" is a conventional thriller caper, the believability of the story is not helped by some highly unlikely actions on behalf of Sutler that makes his situation worse. You don't have to be a hardened criminal to chose the right option faced with the situation of keeping a critical bit of information either a) about your person or b) just chuck it in the luggage compartment, particularly having realized that a choice needs to be made. Like many things though, apparently illogical events feature again later in the book, particularly in the third book.
The second book, "The Massive" is by far and away the strongest. It's the most political and is in the main a prequal to the events of "Sutler". The focus is on the US civilians working to build a new Iraqi city in the desert. With just a few additions, this could stand alone as a powerful novel. I loved it.
The third book is the one Eric is reading in book one. "The Kill" tells of a mysterious serial killing in Naples of an American student which is made into a novel and then a film. The story is like a Russian doll and is full of layers and textures. In book four, one character notes that this book is "not a very good book" and that's a little harsh although you have to worry when a character describes a quarter of your book as not that good. It's technically complex and clever, but doesn't necessarily make for a great read and as a central part to the project does, for me, struggle to live up to the mysterious role it has in the book as a whole.
The final book, "The Hit" is just plain creepy and concerns a reclusive man apparently trying to kill one of the men suspected of being the still missing Sutler. By this time I was feeling that the whole thing had been stretched about as far as it could go and the failure of House to tie up any number of lose ends is a little frustrating but one that will probably make those who loved the book more than I did somewhat evangelical about its structure.
Perhaps the quotation from the book that sums the piece up best comes late on when one character says: "It isn't the story at all, but the conviction with which it is delivered. The money is something else, a distraction". House delivers his stories with conviction.
It's certainly very clever. Although each book does stand alone, if you were to read them separately, I would make sure you read them in order. In my view, if you read the first two books in the series, you will have extracted the very best elements of the project though and any lose ends to the story remain that way even after 1000 plus pages.
on 5 July 2014
this is essentially three novels with the quest to find out who the victim is and who the ultimate perpetrator is of a murder - the hyper links to mini-videos and sound tracks is ingenious and definitely part of the allure despite its being cumbersome to use (I kept losing my place on the kindle i read it on, or when i read it on my iPad, i had to keep finding my place again and again - never mind) - the opening novella was utterly engrossing partially because i was getting used to the gimmick of the multi media; the lengthy middle section among soldiers is complex, gritty and moving, just too long - and the only women are the wives left at home reflected in their husband's recounting of events. i only got part way into the third section - it is sort of way too long - but very competent and adept writing, vignettes and characters- and sometimes i am only too aware that there's contrivance and extra features involved...
on 19 October 2014
One section of the book is discussed in depth.
The Kills was enormously hyped on publication, as though it were a once-in-a-decade event. And yet Amazon reviewers seem lukewarm.
I decided to see for myself; & although not my favourite genre, being a complex, detailed, gritty, 'masculine' thriller I was quite enjoying it, in spite of finding it confusing at times. Until I got to the chapter or section 'Istanbul'.
I am talking here of the first book in the volume, Sutler. The protagonist, Sutler aka Ford, an innocent man who has been set up as a decoy by a powerful organisation, is fleeing through chaotic & inhospitable regions in the Middle East. He arrives in Istanbul, where, unknown to him, an earlier pursuer, a journalist, has (by extraordinary coincidence) caught up with him again. Sutler is desperate to change some travellers cheques into local currency & to this end walks round a busy commercial area. Hunted, in an alien environment unable to speak the language, terrified of being spotted again, he nevertheless decides to draw attention to himself by discussing his requirements loudly with traders!? I can only assume that the idea is to attract the attention of someone who can change the money, but this seems an enormous contradiction.
This is as nothing to what follows: he is indeed approached by a man (referred to in the narrative as a courier), who confidentially tells him he can help, if Sutler will follow him. And Sutler does, through narrow alleys until they come to a small shop, where he introduces Sutler to Zubenko. Watched by two rather sinister looking sons in a back area, Zubenko takes Sutler's cheques but explains he has not quite the full amount but will meet Sutler that evening to give him the balance; on the strength of Sutler's remark that he is leaving tomorrow, he also offers to arrange a covert passage out on a local ferry - as if he somehow understands & is sympathetic to Sutler's position.
But more extraordinary 'luck' is to follow. The courier had told Sutler that he is being followed & pointed out his pursuer to him. Not only does Zubenko honour his promises & helps Sutler get away, but in the meantime & unknown to Sutler his sons have waylaid the journalist & are holding him prisoner, taunting him & apparently breaking his legs. They (claim to) believe he is a paedophile, & later when police question the desk clerk at the hotel where he was staying, the clerk also claims that the journalist sought to solicit boys. If this is true we have been given no hint, & it seems more like a complex conspiracy to no purpose. Except, narrative-wise, to help Sutler escape.
I won't go on; at this point I felt my resolve & enjoyment crumbling, feeling I had strayed into a farce. Sutler, perhaps, as a man at the end of his tether, might act as he did in the town. But for the courier, Zubenko & sons, the desk clerk, possibly the police, all to be involved in some kind of conspiracy to help Sutler, having anticipated his arrival in Istanbul? Just serendipity? Or clumsy plotting?
None of these, apparently. The book is 'playfully postmodern', deliberately undermining itself as a realistic novel. We make up our world by constructing stories. This is based on the notion that language is purely self-referential: it can never describe an outward reality but only refer back to itself. It follows that a novel cannot be realistic but only 'describe'- refer to - other novels & forms of writing. The writer here has used these ideas - for example, the chase, extreme coincidence, fortuitous turns of events, slippery identities - to point up the unreliability of the narrative & the impossibility of the reader knowing the 'truth' about characters or events.
Here are a couple of sentences from this section:
"Gibson did not call Parson back. Instead - as he walked among the coaches...."
Who is the subject, the 'he' of the second sentence? Gibson, presumably. But no, it is Parson, which we know only because of what has gone before. At first I thought this was a straightforward error of syntax, but as I began to understand the nature of the book I realised that the mistake may be deliberate, again drawing our attention to the rupture between words & reality. But there is literally no telling, no right answer.
An important motif running throughout is a book, The Kill, which is supposedly a real account of a murder, a murder that was copied from a crime novel. You can see where this is going: a non-fiction book about a real murder based on a fictional book about an imaginary murder; there is a deliberate blurring of the connect between the novel as a form & reality as it is constructed in language. The title of the third book in this volume is The Kill, which purports to be that book; & of course the whole volume being reviewed here is The Kills. The use of this motif is a 'massive' clue. Groan.
The last line of the volume reads: '..because there needs to be an end.' Because this is fiction, & closure is a fictional device.
Once you see this technique of 'playfulness' it accounts for many of the puzzling or apparently arbitrary elements. I have outlined just a few of many, & there are almost certainly many others I haven't spotted.
The trouble with such theories & techniques is that are intellectual: they may be clever, & their use in this playful way may be intellectually amusing, but they are not intuitive. Having the ground constantly pulled out from under your feet does not necessarily make for enjoyable reading. Human beings are said to be storytellers, & to enjoy a story we (most of us) have to find it coherent & believable. It has to make sense, however illusory that may be.
The book reminds me a little of Catch 22, though the focus of Heller's book is the Absurd, rather than Postmodernism, & it is funny & to my mind much more successful
Since writing the above I have persevered with the book(s) & have finished the second one, The Massive. The writing is very impressive, powerfully conveying the shocking realities of the shambles & abuses of the US presence in Iraq & the Middle East; but for me (& for many others to judge by the reviews) it would have been better as straightforward realism.
I don't know if I shall read any more, as it all begins to seem a bit long-winded & pointless. Meaningless, even?!
on 30 March 2014
This is an excellent, literate quartet of thrillers.
As mentioned above, most of the characters find themselves in difficult, complex situations governed by forces out of their control.
Most loose ends are tidied up ok and one is left under few illusions as to the fate of the characters - 'The Massive', for example, opens with an account of the main characters' fates.
The loose ends not tidied up are fairly irrelevant and such is the author's skill that it doesn't really matter, to be honest. I would say it was best to come at these novels not expecting a neat, Hollywood ending. The reader can, to a certain extent, draw their own conclusions and fill the gaps with their own interpretation.
I took a breather between novels 2 and 3; novel 3 is quite a change in direction from the first 2 (where pretty much everything is tidied up). It was my favourite of the quartet, with Naples very well rendered. I liked the play between fiction and non-fiction, and there was a very strong sense of unease. Novel 4 is interesting geo-politically.
Well worth a couple of weeks of your time - books to linger over.
on 24 March 2014
OK this is a killer of a book or books I should say. It is one of those massive works that requires a lot of effort and goodwill and understanding. I started off enthusiastically but have to say that by the end I was flagging. If you are a reader you will enjoy most of it. But it's a tough read. Worthwhile at times but some passages can confuse and annoy the reader. So much going on that you are can get quite lost. Probably make a tremendous art film. Give it a go but prepared to be frustrated.
Richard House has tried to create something along the lines of Roberto Bolano's 2666 - a series of loosely connected novels forming together to create something whole. Just as in 2666, the sections wouldn't really work as stand alone novels, yet are not sequential or linked directly in style.
It is absolutely not a traditional thriller or whodunnit.
The basic intention is to build a world - an atmosphere. There seem to be two principle narrative focuses - a corrupt contract for rebuilding Iraq, and a series of killings that copycat a situation depicted in a trashy best-selling novel. As in Bolano's work, the issues are never really dealt with head on; we follow some of the people whose lives are touched by these narratives and have to infer the bigger picture from their thoughts and actions. This is hard since the different angles sometimes contradict one another and often get bogged down in a sea of confusion.
The atmosphere is done really well. Whether it is Sutler, on the run across the dustbowl of Eastern Turkey; the seamy sex industry in Naples; the small town lives in America that drive their sons to seek fortune in the desert; or the nightclubs of Cyprus. Most sections are set in sunshine. The heat and sand and desolation feel real. The people feel real too; flawed, driven by hidden agenda, afraid, defensive.
For the first half of The Kills, Richard House seems to have complete mastery of his material. And the focus is exclusively on the corrupt project in Iraq. It really does feel like the same situation viewed from different angles, through different lenses. The diversion to Naples feels like a misstep, and the third "book" in the series never quite gels. It also feels like a bit of a diversion from the real focus on Iraq. But looking again to 2666 for parallels, there was a twin focus on murders in Mexico and on the writer Archimboldi - albeit there was a more obvious link between these two strands. Naples and Iraq never quite seem to meet.
The final "book" sees a return to the format of the first, and does make a half-hearted attempt to link some of the earlier strands, although it does also challenge some of the certainty that readers had probably achieved at the end of the first book. Mostly, though, there are great unanswered questions. The conclusion seems to be that there isn't a big picture - only parallel stories. That's a bit galling for the crescendo of a 1000 page epic.
The Kills sells itself also on the basis of wider audio and visual material available through an e-book or on-line. These links didn't work on my Kindle Paperwhite and are apparently not essential to the novel. They do represent innovation, however, and sit well with the concept of a novel that is not a story; is not driven by plot or character but more by situation and environment.
The Kills is a hugely ambitious project that, in trying to emulate 2666, has set its sights very high. It does get half way to delivering - perhaps more 1333 than 2666 - but it is a pretty good effort for all that.
on 29 August 2013
This truly is a book I could scarcely put down. The basic plot is straightforward, but a multiplicity of complex characters, and complex motives, coupled with extremely vivid evocation of the middle eastern and mediterranean environment and culture, make for a very stimulating read. What makes it all the more interesting is that one suspects that the outrageous fraud at the heart of the novel, and the attempts to cover it up, are all too likely to represent reality closely. This is really classy writing.
on 4 September 2013
Excellent press reviews prompted me to read this and I wasn't disappointed. It's very long but never boring . Descriptions of life and work in the desert 'camp' are evocative. The Naples section is equally credible. Plot twists and connections are thought provoking and the whole novel adds up and poses questions about things from major corporations to human nature. I've made it sound pretentious but it can be read as a really good thriller - or four of them.
on 8 September 2013
Having just finished my summer's read in September, I can attest to the length of the book. As four novels in one, it certainly has the space to consider many characters, situations, ideas and stories. But while the first two books work very well, the last two seem contrived and a bit rushed, almost like the author lost interest in the book as well. I really enjoyed the verisimilitude of the Iraq stories; both had a strong sense of place and time, clearly in the 'now' and almost up to the minute with Syria references. The characters, the intrigue, the doubt and the settings all worked well. The third and fourth books lacked this coherence and while they had some interesting elements, the plots struggled for direction and the characters came and went too quickly to engage the reader. 'Because there has to be an end,' I finished the last book, but was left unsatisfied by how it was wrapped up. I had not expected a tidy Dan Browneseque conclusion, but so many characters simply walk off stage with no follow-up (e.g. Geezler). Partly the point, I realise, but excessively so in this case. Usually, the 'less is more' rule applies and certainly here, a great 500 page novel is buried in the sands of a 1,000 page saga. Still, the first two books are definitely worth a read.
on 24 August 2013
Having managed to read 82% of this book I am not really any the wiser about what goes on than when I read the first 20% or so. Part of my problem is that I bought a Kindle edition & find it difficult to keep referring back. The plot lines are so convoluted that it is hard to make head or tail of it all. It hops from the Iraq to the U.S.A to Italy to Germany then Cyprus. with a few tenuous threads connecting some of the plot. The women are miserable & why are two of them pregnant? it has nothing to do with the non story. I am now reduced to reading the dialogue and skipping the scenery. I don't know if I have the courage to finish this boring book.