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the complete review - fiction
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- A quartet of novels: Sutler, The Massive, The Kill, and The Hit,
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B : neatly conceived four-in-one novel(s) with some fine storytelling -- but ultimately overdeveloped
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "For all its bulk The Kills proves easily digestible; less so the multimedia content. The couple of hours’ worth of extra video available online mostly consists of films of moody scenery over which actors whisper accounts of important (or not) events in the characters’ lives. It is an unnecessary undertaking; the mass of words is compelling enough." - John Sunyer, Financial Times
- "Richard House has written a gripping, hallucinogenic -- and enormous -- novel that deals with the aftermath of the Iraq conflict. (...) House has a great ability to create vivid characters, and the novel teems with them. But the writing in this third book is too abundant -- there is simply too much story." - Kate Pullinger, The Guardian
- "As a whole, The Kills is an ambitious and complex meta-thriller that spins its many stories like plates, tantalising you at every turn with the thought that it might all be one big story, if only you could see through the noise to the pattern behind. (...) The Kills is a page-turner, but the pages turn back as much as forwards, as you chase up echoes and repetitions -- long-forgotten names and places, but also wasps, the smell of jasmine, the gesture of pulling a handbag strap over a shoulder -- that might be clues, might be red herrings, might be the product of my own fevered mind." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Independent
- "As the story takes shape, House inundates the reader with minutiae specific to the world of military contracts and contractors. It's overwhelming, but it's meant to be. (...) House may not have written a conventional thriller, but The Kills is a thrilling work of art by a writer at the top of his game." - Jim Ruland, The Los Angeles Times
- "There are moments when this gargantuan structure threatens to topple. (...) That said, there are more successes than failures in these 1,000 pages. And the patience required to get through it all is made easy by House’s insistent and electric prose style, which imbues long passages about corporate machinations with bristling suspense. (...) This is not an international thriller so much as a fiercely literate attempt to subvert the thriller genre itself." - Christopher Rice, The New York Times Book Review
- "Although someone might see the entire massive affair here as suggestive of matters we're all familiar with, I found that at the sentence level the narrative was flat, and dull, and in imaginative terms more of a riff on a single theme than a full-blooded, full-fleshed response to what went on in Iraq over the many years of our occupation. Did I get all this right ? I can hardly believe I'm still standing, let alone understanding it all." - Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle
- "For all its bulk The Kills proves easily digestible, as it is not so much a novel as four shortish, tangentially connected novels in one. (...) The House method of storytelling is to create brilliantly realised characters, focus on them for a brief, intense period, and then abandon them, often leaving their fates obscure. (...) (A)s to the book itself, it is well worth ejecting five or six conventional thrillers from your holiday luggage and devoting yourself to The Kills for a few days. Like all the best thrillers, it takes you on a hell of a ride, even if by the end you’re not quite sure where exactly it is you’ve arrived at." - Jake Kerridge, The Telegraph
- "It's crowded with intertwining storylines, hidden associations and mysteries both explained and unresolved. It's exciting, visceral, bitingly intelligent and maddeningly circuitous. Reading it will make quick work of a cross-country flight or a weekend at the beach. On a few occasions, you'll want to hurl it across the room. (...) Mr. House provides no definitive answers, but from all the often frustrating obfuscation a larger meaning does emerge." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Kills consists of a quartet of novels, but it is not your traditional tetralogy.
The four books are connected, and there is some overlap of story and characters, but the narrative as a whole does not progress neatly from one next to the next; arguably, they are stand-alone works, with the full appreciation of the texts enhanced by reading the lot, to see and get the big(ger) picture.
[The book was originally published in the UK in e-book form, the text 'digitally augmented' (clips can be seen at online at the UK publicity site), before coming out in print; interestingly, the US (hardcover) publication, a year later, dispenses with any mention of the supplemental video material beyond a list of "Video & audio"-names in the Acknowledgements, and the American publicity page does not mention or provide easy access to this material (i.e., they're going all-in with the all-print version).
UK opinion on the formats seems to have been divided: "The digital edition is far and away the better way to read this novel" Kate Pullinger suggested in The Guardian, while in The Observer -- reviewing only the first of the four novels -- Anna Baddeley complained: "If you're going to the trouble of embedding audio and video, then go the whole hog and make it integral to the plot. Otherwise it's little more than a decorative distraction, and frustrating to people who read the unenhanced text."]
The first novel is titled Sutler, after its not quite eponymous protagonist -- a man named John Jacob Ford who has been going under the name Stephen Lawrence Sutler: "Strictly speaking, Sutler didn't exist".
This is only one of many figures whose identities are unclear or disguised -- but Ford certainly takes the cake in this regard, his true identity well-hidden, and even when he sheds the Sutler-moniker he introduces himself -- when he must -- by a variety of other false names.
The novel begins with Ford receiving an urgent message: he -- or rather Sutler, the man he has been posing as -- has to disappear.
Ford -- as Sutler -- works in American-occupied Iraq, on a short-term contract.
He is employed by HOSCO -- the Halliburton-like Hospitality and Organizational Support Company of Hampton Roads, Virginia -- a: "middleman upon which everything depended", who handle all sorts of logistics, from payroll to basic supplies, to organizing transport, local security and the stores and fast-food outlets that keep the military and their other contractors covered.
Ford was hired, in a rush, by the man who now needs him to disappear just as abruptly, Paul Geezler, Advisor to the Division Chief, Europe for HOSCO International.
Geezler promised Ford a big payday to see to some things in Iraq; time is of the essence.
Ford was given little time to make up his mind -- and there was one other essential provision: "You must become Sutler".
The quarter of a million dollar he could earn for his troubles blind Ford a bit, and he can't refuse what's dangled in front of him.
In fact, however, he's a patsy, being set up: fifty-three-million dollars have been re-routed and the blame is meant to be pinned on him -- an explosion conveniently taking him out so that he's the dead fall guy.
But Ford survives the attack and escapes, and realizes it's better to be on the run (even though it's a while before he realizes what game is being played with him -- and what the real amounts involved are).
Ford makes his way to Turkey, where he travels and for a while stays with three people who are working on a film: "A documentary. A project. The Project."
Along the way he also crosses paths with two journalists, who recognize him (as Sutler, his face plastered all over the news) and later take up the scent again.
Geezler also sends someone to look for him -- Parson, a public adjuster working for a company that advises HOSCO: "on insurance settlements that concern the UK and British citizens"; as someone points out, very late in the day, he's an unlikely candidate for this particular job:
Tell me, Mr.Parson, did you ever ask yourself why they hired you ?
You investigate accidents and fraud, and this is very specific work, no ?
Very particular ?
And yet they have charged you with a major investigation.
Did it occur to you that by hiring you, the company might deliberately prevent the people who understand these things from performing their duties ?
Parson may have been put in a position a bit out of his league, but he's not a complete patsy; in fact, he has his own little agenda, and rather leads HOSCO on -- continuing through the fourth and final novel, in which the trail suggests not only several Sutlers, but also several Paul Geezlers (the latter trails laid by Parson, who suggests to HOSCO that Sutler is traveling under that pseudonym).
While Ford is traveling with the documentary-makers in Turkey, Eric, the student-intern in the group, is reading a book that he also then presses on Ford, about a gruesome murder in Naples, famous because it is based on a novel, called The Kill ("You're not supposed the say the title or something bad will happen") -- with the writer who wrote the book Eric is reading having mysteriously disappeared (as people in this story are wont to).
The third part/novel of The Kills is titled The Kill and presents this Neapolitan murder-story (along with, for example, 'Sections previously not published in English' of the original The Kill ...; yes, The Kills is a very multilayered (re)creation ...).
The second part/novel of The Kills is The Massive, which begins with a description of the fate of half a dozen or so men in the years "after the events at Camp Liberty" -- fates that are uniformly dismal.
Then the story returns to Iraq, to where those men had worked, "at the burn pits at Camp Liberty in the southern desert of Al-Muthanna" for six weeks, the root of all this misery and personal devastation.
Each is enticed to contract-work for HOSCO by the incredible amounts of money that apparently can be earned, and the promise that it's safe -- "In Amrah City, Steve promised, you won't see one local. Not one. It couldn't be safer" -- but the money turns out not to be that good, after all the deductions and unless great risks are taken, and everything from the living conditions to the work is not quite as easy as they all pictured.
The burn pits would seem to offer a way for some easy big money -- practically in the middle of the desert, they're relatively safe and the work seems pretty straightforward.
But, in fact, little is straightforward -- and the burn pits are illegal (HOSCO claims to have shut them down), and a lot of the crap being burned there is of the sort that should not be disposed of in this manner.
It's no surprise that Stephen Sutler shows up at Camp Liberty -- we know that he'd spent some time there from the first pages of Sutler, and that one of those accompanying him was killed in the explosion meant for him -- but his job there, scouting the area: "As one of the four potential sites for the Massive" (essentially building a city from scratch there) sounds even more harebrained than most of what the military-industrial complex got up to in Iraq.
In any case, readers know where this is going, at least as far as Sutler goes, whose story continues where, in fact, the reader began (i.e. most of the events in novel two in fact precede those in novel one).
The third part/novel is, as noted, set largely in Italy, years earlier, and involving a completely different cast of characters -- though similar themes and issues do arise, including characters disguising their real identities, some to avoid being found, for example.
Here, too, characters read The Kill -- and, as we know from Eric's account, that novel is seen to be the inspiration for similar disturbing crimes.
There's hidden money, too -- just as with Ford, who theoretically might have access to the embezzled HOSCO funds.
The final part/novel more or less continues the story left off at the end of the first, the mysterious Sutler still being sought, but brings new characters to the fore in recounting this part of the story.
As someone notes, late on:
I was speaking with Paul Geezler, and he is frustrated because this can't be controlled. Parson. Sutler. It is too chaotic now.
Despite the complexity of its design, The Kills is not chaotic; in fact, it is a very controlled narrative -- anchored also in the familiar objects, characters, and themes that (re)appear throughout the different stories and accounts.
House's writing is deliberate -- a careful unpacking of information, made disorienting only by the fact that parts are not presented in chronological order (on smaller and larger scales -- The Massive has a brief introductory section before returning to the past that led to it, while of course most of the events in The Massive itself precede those in Sutler).
House is not obvious about many of the connections, but he certainly makes readers aware there are connections: though often subtle, there are too many to miss, and so readers naturally are on the lookout for them, and how they fit together.
Ultimately , however this is also the books weakness: it feels overdeveloped, the story-telling becoming ponderous.
Oddly, too, the focus on connections can distract from some of the substance of the novel.
The Kills is an in part vivid indictment of the military-industrial complex and especially the mess it made in Iraq -- including, specifically, to the contractors hired to do the grunt work, American and otherwise (when we first meet Parson he has also reported on another case, the death of translator, the details of which also only appear The Massive and are a fine example of how far collateral damage extends).
It makes for a fairly powerful novel of the American occupation of Iraq, and the human toll it took (and the abuses it allowed).
All in all, it's all a bit much -- but The Kills is an intriguing and largely satisfying long read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 29 July 2014
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Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
British author Richard House was born in 1961.
He teaches at the University of Birmingham.
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© 2014 the complete review
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