Originally published at The Quivering Pen
"Stieg Larsson marries Quentin Tarantino"....(credit David Abrams with the cool title!)
At least the man knows how to clean and how to straighten up a room. I’ll give him that much credit, despite the fact his tidying up is only a way to kill time, waiting on a woman who may end up a victim. Vacuum expertise aside, however, it’s difficult to find much else of interest in this arrogant and chatty assassin nicknamed “Toxic,” the main character of the novel The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning, who continually reminds us just how skilled he is at murder. Immediately, we start to wonder how this will play out: is he going to turn into a valiant hero, or will he maintain his tragic vision and become the rarely seen, fully fledged anti-hero?
“…I’m really proud of my hitman work. I always try to do a good job. ‘Victim first’ is my motto.”Determined to come across as a fully-accredited badass, the protagonist narrates his every thought and action as he flees the U.S. after a hit goes wrong. Seeing the FBI on his tail, he quickly changes his plans, kills another stranger, and steals his identity. He awakes on a plane bound for Reykjavik, Iceland. The odds are good his escape plan will work, except that his new identity is that of a well-known fundamental Christian leader with a schedule of appearances awaiting him. Deciding to play along with the ruse, he manages to record some disturbing radio sermons and manipulate his somewhat confused hosts, all while looking for a way out of Iceland.
Author Hallgrimur Helgason often channels Quentin Tarantino with action similar to the film director’s style: fast-paced violence, pop culture references, saturated with sarcasm. This is completely intentional, as Tarantino gets mentioned (as do Beyonce and Creed) several times in the storyline. The frenetic pace makes it difficult to absorb just how despicable the character is, and I found myself grasping for some quality to make him likable, some redeeming quality that would explain his often disturbing actions.
“Usually I don’t want to know anything about my victims. It’s like back in the war. I kill strangers. I don’t feel for them. They’re just another head to swamp my bullet into…Usually they have refused to pay their tithe, failed to deliver for Dikan, or they show up with the same tie as he at the Mafia Oscars.”See that? He manages to radiate disinterest and boredom, while at the same time making a really bad joke. Unfortunately, that becomes the theme of this novel. When hiding in an attic looking himself up on Google, he jokes, “I’m Anne Frank online.” Upon remembering a group of beautiful women, he shares his wishes for “mass rape.” He is endlessly amused at the low murder rates in the country, and spends his time remembering the better days in the States where he celebrated each kill with glee.
It becomes clear at the midpoint of the novel that there is a source of his internal conflict and external bravado: he served in the Balkan war, and with his father and brother, saw and participated in terrible atrocities. Helgason inserts the details slowly, and it’s possible to feel a tiny bit of pity for the protagonist. But it doesn’t last, as experiences of war don’t seem sufficient to mitigate his present behavior. If anything, the arc of the Balkan storyline appears so far into the novel that it feels too late to make up for his actions. Of course, mindlessly killing a small dog doesn’t exactly make him appealing. And yet his self-awareness grows, likely because he’s out of his element and who he had been can’t exist anymore. In one brief moment, he admits, “everybody must have figured out I am the monster who lives under the bridge.”
On the surface, the premise of The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning is very clever, but the delivery is so unsavory that it is neither tragic nor comic. The sarcasm and humor feels forced, almost like a joke told by a comedian who is trying far too hard to get a laugh. I get the feeling that Helgason is trying to reinforce just what a “monster” Toxic is due to his past experiences, yet there’s no evidence that he’s left the past behind. The other characters he encounters seem flat, as if they are only tools to further reveal Toxic’s depravity.
Perhaps this can be attributed to the Stieg Larsson effect. Scandinavian crime novels boomed with his “Girl” trilogy, but the dark mystery novels were nothing new. Other authors, such as Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Karin Alvtegen and Arnaldur Indridason have created suspenseful and imaginative crime stories in the same setting for years before the region became comparatively “hot” in the literary world. While those authors don’t often present characters quite as colorful as Toxic, they usually succeed in developing deeper characters with a more compelling warmth.
Review by Amy Henry