Weighing in at around 1000 pages, no one could accuse Richard House of brevity in his inventive book (or four books).
The first two books, “Sutler” and “The Massive”, are set in Iraq: but you never really meet a soldier or an Iraqi. Instead the focus is on civilian contractors working on projects for private companies, where the aim is either not to complete the projects or to undertake needless one – building a bend into a functioning straight road, for example. The name of the game is getting the financing and then funnelling most of the money off into individuals back pockets. To that end the whole Kills MacGuffin is the theft/misappropriation of £53 million, and the hunt for the man, Sutler, who the companies claim has taken it. In ‘The Massive’ we read about men we already know are dead, men hired in the US to man ‘Burn Pits’ where the Allied forces bring their medical goods, clothing, machinery etc to be incinerated and buried, whilst in the process producing huge amounts of toxic fumes.
Whilst these stories tie together – if presented in reverse chronological order, book three ‘The Kill’ is one that really throws you off guard, as it’s story of the apparent vicious murder of an American student in the city of Naples seems not to have even the vaguest connection with the first two books. However, soon you realise that the murder has replicated that of one described in a well-known novel – a novel which is mentioned in the earlier books, and soon you also recall a film of the book being mentioned and the connection is made. It is House’s novel within a novel.
So we move onto book four ‘The Hit’ and find ourselves back with the search for the missing money and Sutler – or three possible Sutlers. This time however we do so in the company of Rike, sister in law of a German diplomat who has been taxed to take one of the Sutlers into custody. These events seem on the periphery of the story as family relations and Rike’s job of teaching English as a foreign language are the main thrust of this final part of the book, it is also where novel about the murder also makes a final appearance.
For a 1000 page book this is a surprisingly easy read. House is an engaging writer and is good at managing his cast of characters. The book is at its best, for me, in “Sutler” and “The Massive”, where the almost understated style just keeps you turning the page, and in the second half of ‘The Hit’ where some loose ends are dealt with. The Kill, as the novel within the novel, about a novel, is playfully constructed but also feels like he has thrown several kitchen sinks into it – perhaps intentionally so – and as a result it seems to be almost overpowered by its own ambition.
Despite this I think the Kills as a whole does work as a piece of fiction. It is about the faceless middle men behind the scenes that no one really knows about and most people don’t care about, a subject not dealt with enough in modern fiction. It certainly deserves its place on the Booker long-list. I enjoyed it.
If you choose to read the interactive version of the book, you also get multimedia additions to the text which are sometimes baffling, sometime fun, but never lees than interesting. It is certainly the first interactive book that I have read that worked in any sense of the word.