Stephen King
Stephen King

A Review of Stephen King’s “Billy Summers”

An Excellent Summer Read

“Billy Summers” Book Cover
“Billy Summers” Book Cover

Stephen King has seemingly turned some of his attention away from the occult or supernatural and has become something of a crime writer. Perhaps this might be for the best because how many times must we get a variant on “the car that kills people” short story or novel? It could be that King’s well has run dry in this regard, but it might turn out that this change to writing crime fiction offers a little more variety to the King oeuvre. To that end, I’m happy to report that King’s latest novel, Billy Summers, is destined to go down as a classic as it is one of his very best novels — or at least best in terms of his late-career output. It’s two stories in one, but there’s enough here to fill at least three novels. What’s more, the book goes on for at least four acts, which means that you get curve balls thrown into the mix — this is a novel about crosses and double-crosses, and seeking vengeance and justice for all of them. It could be said that because a major character is introduced almost halfway into the read that King might have painted himself into a bit of a corner and had to throw something new into the mix. However, this is a book that starts out being very good and only gets better and better from there, climaxing in a bittersweet ending.

The story is about a former Marine and Iraq War veteran who has turned into a hitman, the titular Billy Summers. He makes a point of only killing bad men and is paid modestly for his efforts, never making more than $70,000 for ending someone’s life. However, as Summers is thinking of retiring from the biz, he is summoned once again for one last job that will pay $2 million. He is stationed in a small city in the American South to wait until a chance arises to kill a man, a murderer who has killed a teenager in the past, when the bad guy is brought back from California (where he has been arrested for lesser crimes) to the city to go to trial for murder. The hit is to be done before this man can make a plea deal that will bring his sentence from the death penalty to life in prison but might blow the lid on crimes others have committed in the deal. So, there’s a lot of waiting around before Billy is to do his deed and he passes the time with a cover story that he’s a writer by writing a sort of autobiography about his life and also, rightly or wrongly, getting close to his neighbours. He is also smarter than he looks. We meet him at the start of the novel where he’s reading an Archie comic, but one of his favourite books is Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola.

Billy Summers is essentially a book that is about writing, as there’s a story within a story that tells of Billy’s past as written by Billy himself. But the point of the story is that some works are not meant to be published; they are meant to lead to the truth about oneself and be used as a sort of therapy, perhaps. At the same time, this book might be a riff on King’s own thoughts of writing — after all, he’s at the point where he could publish his grocery list, and perhaps he has some unpublished work somewhere in the vaults that we may never see (at least, in King’s lifetime). That said, this is also one balls-to-the-wall, roller-coaster ride of a novel. It is so gripping that, even though the book clocks in at more than 500 pages, I read most of it during a Saturday afternoon. As noted, the book starts out being quite readable but only gets more and more exciting as the stakes begin to ratchet up and new wrinkles are thrown into the plot. I’m trying to be deliberate and say not too much about the story, because, as is becoming often the case with the books I read, the less you know about what happens in this book, the more of a delightful surprise it will be.

However, I do have to mention one thing about the book’s climax — so you may want to stop reading here if you have yet to read Billy Summers and come back to this review once you are finished. I found it incredibly rich that King’s main villain is a pedophile, considering that King wrote a scene featuring children having an orgy some 35 years ago with It. And there are loose ends that never get tied: Billy loses part of his disguise when dealing with some college-aged rapists and leaves a child’s drawing of someone he befriended behind at one of his hits, but neither of these lapses comes back to bite him in the ass. It’s as though, even though Billy makes his share of mistakes, he’s a kind of John Wick-like superhero who generally gets through life unscathed. I also wish there was more about Billy’s history as a hitman in this novel, as we do get a blow-by-blow account of his childhood and his time serving in Iraq. Still, these are minor quibbles as, when it comes down to it, Billy Summers is a gripping and entertaining read.

Billy Summers is a book that has brawn and brains in equal measure. I liked the fact that Billy doesn’t have a sexual relationship with the main female protagonist of this book, which is going against the grain of a typical King novel. It’s as though the author is playing with the expectations of the genre and his own work. And, it turns out, there is a somewhat supernatural edge to the book, thanks to a connection with King’s The Shining. (I’ll say no more about that.) At the end of the day, Billy Summers proves that Stephen King isn’t just a master of horror, he’s a master of the crime fiction genre, too. Everything about this book is expertly plotted, save for the odd thread that is left unravelled here and there, and is immensely enjoyable. If you think that King’s best days as a writer are behind him, you’ll need to pick up this volume. Billy Summers is a heck of a summer read and proves that if you’re diligent enough, brave enough, and have a penchant for righting wrongs, you can tip the scales between right and wrong. This is a finely honed novel from a craftsman, and you’ll be glad to have experienced it. Recommended reading.

Stephen King’s Billy Summers was published by Scribner on August 3, 2021.

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You may also be interested in the following reviews: Stephen King’s The Institute and Stephen King’s If It Bleeds.

Get in touch: zacharyhoule@rogers.com

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Zachary Houle

Zachary Houle

Book critic by night, technical writer by day. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.