Review: Billy Summers

4 stars
A thriller about a "hitman with a heart", engaging despite the tropes

As a constant reader of Stephen King’s many works, I continue to be impressed by his ability to put a fresh spin on familiar tropes. Billy Summers is the hitman with a heart who only kills “bad guys”, and who is hired for “one last job” that quickly goes off the rails.

Summers is an Iraq vet, who has since turned his sniper skills towards more profitable ends while maintaining a personal moral code. For his last job, he has to blend in with the locals in Red Bluff, a small town east of the Mississippi, awaiting the extradition of his mark from out of state, for a hit at the local court house. That could be months away, but the job promises a payday to make it worth it.

The details make the story work. Summers cultivates a “dumb self” towards his employers, slowing his speech and pretending to have a reading level barely sufficient for Archie comics while secretly stashing away a book by Émile Zola. In Red Bluff, he gets to know his neighbors and the people in his office building, becoming quick friends with almost anybody.

The cover story for Summers’ stay is that he is a writer working on a novel, which is an excuse for him to actually write the story of his own life. This “book within the book” focuses on Summers’ childhood and his time in Iraq. (Billy Summers only includes short excerpts of Summers’ biography, and the timelines of both books eventually meet.)

Of course, the story doesn’t end after Summers takes his shot. A series of confrontations follows, and a young woman enters the story, who plays a crucial role towards the end. While the book doesn’t break any new ground, Stephen King incorporates both world events and references to his own works into the story to keep things interesting.

If you’re looking for a recent King novel that heavily tilts towards the supernatural, I would recommend Later (2021), The Institute (2019), or The Outsider (2018) instead. But if a more conventional thriller with King’s touch sounds interesting, you’re unlikely to be disappointed by Billy Summers.