Review: Billy Summers by Stephen King

Billy Summers

Billy Summers is one of the best in his business. However, that business is killer for hire, where Billy puts his military sharpshooter training to good use. Billy justifies his chosen profession by telling himself he only takes jobs where he’s eliminating “bad guys.”

Realizing that he’s only got a certain number of “bad guys” he can take out, Billy decides to take one last, extremely lucrative job and retire.

But what he didn’t count on was that while getting in place for the kill, that he’d start to immerse himself in the community around him, connecting with his neighbors under his assumed identity, and even starting an itch to put down some roots or establish a few human connections. Of course, Billy then has to complete the job, leaving those who met him, knew him, and grew to love him, scratching their heads at how this nice guy who played Monopoly with the kids could be a cold-blooded killer.

One thing you can say about Stephen King is he never writes the same book twice. He may revisit some of the same themes in his work — especially when it comes to exploring the process and the implications of writing — but he doesn’t repeat himself when it comes to characters and situations. And while he’s primarily classified as a horror writer, I’d argue that in the last decade or so, he’s moved away from just writing about the supernatural.

Billy Summers is another step in that process –and it’s a novel that you can tell challenged King and that will challenge his readers. I don’t say this to cast dispersion upon the book, but instead as praise. King could easily churn out another supernatural thriller year after year and many of us would lap it up. Instead, King goes for the interesting story – the one that intrigues him — and then sets out to tell it. Billy Summers has no supernatural elements in it, but it’s still up there as one of the better novels King has written. It’s long on strong characters and world-building. And even when the novel zigs instead of zags in the middle portion, King is a strong enough writer and has created enough trust in his “constant readers” to go along for the ride.

Part of Billy’s identity is he’s a writer, working on his first book. In order to get into character, Billy decides to write his story. At first, he channels what he calls his “dumb side” in case various people who hired him are spying on his computer or reading what he’s written. But as the writing bug bites him, Billy decides to really try and tell his story — and King provides us glimpses into the writing as well as the process for Billy. It’s just one element that makes the novel so fascinating and intriguing.

This is a longer King novel but it never feels like he’s just expanding a page count. Each time I opened up to see what was happening next with Billy, I was immediately immersed into the world of Billy Summers. And yet, there are still some raw, harsh elements to this story — especially in the second half with Billy’s employers try to stiff him out of the money he’s owed.

This is a grim, character-driven, almost-noir-like novel and it’s easily one of the best things King has done in a long time.

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