If you have a week-long, do-nothing holiday planned, or you have to spend some time convalescing in hospital, or you’re going to prison, then Richard House’s monumental, Man Booker-longlisted thriller may be the ideal accompaniment. The Kills is a dense and twisty series of linked stories that range across Europe, America and the Middle East, centred on the corrupt misappropriation of funds meant to rebuild post-war Iraq, with a vivid cast of characters and creepy ‘meta’ overtones - a book within a book that seems to echo murders in the other narrative strands
It was originally published as four enhanced e-books which can be read together or separately, and which contain links to extra video content. You may be glad of this, not because the few bits of video seem to add much, but because the physical hardback, at 1,003 closely typed pages, may put serious strain on your wrists!
At the start of the first book, entitled Sutler, House pitches you into the action without explanation. You tag along with his characters, hoping to catch up and find out who they are. Ford, who works for HOSCO, a company involved in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq, is told by his boss, Paul Geezler, to disappear. HOSCO has embezzled the $53m budget for the creation of The Massive, a city in the desert, and Ford is the fall guy. We see his escape, borrowing elements from the lives of others as a mask, and his pursuit by Parson, an investigator. Richard House’s empathetic skill, as he switches between characters, means the reader wants Ford to escape, but also wants Parson to find him
The second book takes us back to the beginning of HOSCO’s work, and the men in Iraq toiling in the waste-disposal ‘burn pits. Among them is Rem Gunnersen, seduced into the job by Geezler by the promise of a bumper, tax-free income, and whose life story Ford will later borrow to cover his tracks. We see the terrible effect the work has on the men and their families, both close-up through Gunnersen and his wife, and long-distance in a bold opening chapter that skips ahead to each man’s miserable death years later
The third book, The Kill, is set more or less in Italy among a shifting cast of immigrants, horrifically abused prostitutes and foreign students at a language school, one of whom may have been abducted and murdered. In the fourth, The Hit, three youngish German siblings in Cyprus find themselves drawn into the pursuit of the errant Sutler. The character - a sutler is a supplier of goods to soldiers - runs through the whole narrative. There are several deaths, some murderous and some horrifyingly random. The creepy book recurs, and the symbol of the star, and the idea of fraternal killers. There is also a cheeky hint throughout that stories may not actually be benign things
House is a film-maker, artist and university lecturer as well as an author. He has a lovely turn of phrase - a drunken character rendered as “top-heavy, like, overburdened, ready to topple, slake off and hammer down like some great bank of glacial ice” - and he writes in startling detail about character, location and physical mannerisms. This shows diminishing returns as the narrative takes yet another jump and you brace yourself for another city’s geography, another set of characters, yet more native terms in italics
Does The Kills justify its immense length? EM Forster said that “one always tends to overpraise a long book, because one has got through it”, but The Kills, its stories dizzyingly circling one another, feels like a true achievement. House’s sea of words relentlessly interrogates his themes through action and dialogue, leaving his reader washedup on a faraway shore, dazed yet exhilarated