"Billy Summers"| Reviewed by Jennifer Johnson
For the guy who makes a living off tales of supernatural horrors, King is once again at his best in "Billy Summers," a story rooted in reality.
In the novel, Billy Summers is a proverbial ex-military assassin on the brink of retirement after “one last hit.” Likeable and unassuming, his insistence on killing only bad guys and his ability to perform as his alter ego, his “dumb self,” allows Billy to present no perceived threat to his business associates despite being a trained killer. His final job is offered to him with the right price and ultimate cover: masquerading as an author in small town America under the guise of finishing his novel while a-waiting the court date of his target. Billy accepts though is skeptical of what appears to be a foolproof plan developed by the mobsters who have hired him, so he creates his own getaway plan for after the job.
Assuming his false identity, Billy settles into the suburbs, befriending neighbors and catching a glimpse of an alternate life, one he may have had if hired assassin had not been his career of choice. The hospitality and kindness of his new friends is unexpected and nourishing to him after a mostly solitary life. Billy decides to lean into his cover and begins writing his real autobiography, recalling the events in his childhood and military experience that led to him becoming a hired gun.
When the day finally arrives, Billy’s suspicions of his employers prove substantial. After taking out his target he finds himself in hiding, having realized fully that those who hired him to kill had intended to kill him as soon as he had finished the job. While buying time until an opportunity to escape and confront the folks who betrayed him presents itself, Billy receives a surprise in the form of a young woman dumped in front of the apartment building he’s hiding out in. Alive but obviously impaired, Billy brings her in to safety. When she wakes, traumatized by the assault she endured by the men who dumped her, Alice, the young woman, stays with Billy, even after learning his identity as a killer.
The unlikely pair form an unexpected bond and Alice joins Billy on his quest to seek vengeance from those who tried to double cross him, seeking justice for her attack along the way and learning that love and redemption are often where you’d least expect to find them. His developing relationship with Alice is tender and genuine, seemingly the most open and honest relationship that Billy has had with anyone. Not only does Billy allow Alice to read his story, he writes her into it.
With “Billy Summers” Stephen King, the King of Horror, proves his success as a superb storyteller whatever the genre. The story within a story of Billy’s memoir provides background to Billy’s development into a killer and addresses the moral ambiguity of killing bad guys—be it Billy’s mom’s abusive boyfriend who murders his younger sister or the wartime enemies he encounters in Fallujah.
This novel is noir for King fans, full of heart and complexity, breathing life into the “one last job” trope, creating a love story more redemptive than romantic and a protagonist that becomes heroic through healing.