If you disassembled “Billy Summers” and left its pieces scattered like detritus for another author to reconstruct, the result would likely be a fairly conventional thriller. But that’s the magic of Stephen King, isn’t it? Literary tropes are his playthings, there to be manipulated and contorted into something exceptional.
The titular Billy Summers is a former US marine turned contract killer, who is — wouldn’t you know it — also something of a white knight. We empathise with Billy because of his wartime experiences in Iraq, which we learn of through excerpts of the semi-fictional memoir he writes as part of his cover in the lead-up to his final hit. That’s right: “Billy Summers” is a classic ‘one last job’ story. And of course, that job goes horribly wrong.
King’s inclination to explore the psyche of his protagonist, and the world he immerses himself in for the sake of his cover, pushes “Billy Summers” beyond its pulp roots. This is the story of a hitman who learns he’s capable of more than merely pulling a trigger; a man who doesn’t need to be controlled by the trauma of his past; who has the capacity to help someone else manage theirs.
For the most part, King is happy to let his tale simmer. He lets us meet, and grow fond of, his rich, diverse cast. The pacing is deliberate, so when things boil over, and there’s violence on the page, we feel it. It is visceral, bloody and real. His description of one woman’s injuries was almost too much for me: but that was the point, I think — to show readers this is nothing like the hyper-violent world of John Wick. Despite a mention of the Overlook Hotel, there is nothing supernatural about this. The scares are derived from King’s demonstration of the evil men are capable of. And that’s scary enough.