Stephen King notes at the end of his newest book, “Billy Summers,” published this week by Scribner, that he wrote the novel between June 12, 2019, and July 3, 2020. Though it’s far from a “pandemic” book — it’s the latest addition in King’s later-career crime novel period — the sense of the walls closing in that is suffused throughout the book will likely feel familiar to those of us who spent months indoors over the past 18 months.
“Billy Summers” tells the story of the titular character: a hitman with a heart of gold who takes what he hopes will be one last job. While that premise may seem pulled directly out of Crime Novel 101 — or from movies and TV series like “John Wick,” “Nobody” or “Barry” — King manages to turn that trope into a nerve-rattling slow-burn, as Summers, an Iraq War veteran and former army sniper, plots his final hit while hiding out in a nondescript southern town.
The first, superior half of the novel follows Summers as he goes undercover as a novelist doing research for his newest book. A character that is a writer — or is pretending to be one — at the center of the story is familiar territory for King, and he uses that conceit to allow Summers to explore some meaty emotional and intellectual issues through the books the character reads.
We sit alongside Summers as he quietly waits for his chance to take his shot, brooding, musing and pondering the traumas and moral consequences of his life. King writes beautifully about both the seemingly humdrum details of small town living, the seedier backwaters of America and of the idiosyncrasies of Summers, as compelling a main character as he’s ever written.
The second half of the book segues into a more traditional action-packed, hyper-violent revenge story, as Summers seeks to track down the crime bosses that have wronged him — and any other bad guys that might get in his way. He’s conveniently paired with a love interest, Alice, a somewhat underwritten and overly sexualized female character who mostly serves as a springboard for Summers’ plans and schemes.
“Billy Summers” has hardly a whiff of the supernatural to it, aside from a brief reference to the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining,” which happens to not be far from a cabin in Colorado where Billy and Alice stay — another place where a writer falls under the spell of violence, albeit for an entirely different reason. Instead, King’s latest is a refreshingly straightforward, often wildly entertaining and intricately plotted tale of revenge and redemption.