The Kills by Richard House

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The Kills by Richard House

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A collection of four related books, originally published as e-books, with a multi-media component, this Booker longlisted tome starts in with a corruption scandal in Iraq, takes in the fatal dangers of working on civilian reconstruction projects in that country, takes in a serial murder in Italy and ends with a sinister infatuation in Cyprus. Interesting, clever and very long, but ultimately it struggles under the layers of complexity and there's a frustrating lack of conclusion to most of the elements of the stories.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 1024 Date: July 2013
Publisher: Picador
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1447237860

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Richard House's Booker-longlisted The Kills is a collection of four related books, originally published in e-book format between February and June 2013. In some ways, the e-book format is the natural habitat for House's creation as it includes a largely optional multi-media component to the story. It is a hugely ambitious piece about money, murder, greed, stories and where things start and equally where, if ever, they end. Covering more countries than feature in Michael Palin's passport, the book starts with corruption and embezzlement in a US civilian company working in the re-building of Iraq, and ends with a kind of Tales of the Unexpected story in Cyprus having taken in a gruesome story of murder in Naples.

Before getting to the conventional book element of the project, it's worth covering the multi-media component. While I have not seen the e-versions I assume that the suggested points for watching or listening to the various elements is noted in the text, whereas with the hard copy, this is not the case. It is pointed out that the multi-media elements can be watched entirely separately, or not at all, as they are not in any way necessary to the story. In fact, they tend to fill in background stories of the characters. It's not the first book I've seen to introduce a multi-media element but the quality of the short films in particular is of the highest class. They would not look out of place in an installation in the Tate Modern.

House also largely avoids the trap of giving either images or audio to characters - mostly but not entirely the narrative element is told in sub titles in the films - which can detract from the reading experience in the same way that films of much loved books are usually disappointing as they don't fit with our mental images. I have no doubt that this is an area that writers will explore more frequently as e-books gain market share and colour becomes the norm on devices. However, the fact that it is optional viewing rather highlights the point that it is far from essential and doesn't add greatly, if at all, to the book. I remain of the view that while it's interesting in theory, in practice the sense is that it's there because the technology allows it rather than because it serves the story. For all that, it's interesting to watch the clips as a stand alone if you have an interest in video art.

But back to the book. House is excellent at intricate interweaving of plot lines and very good at dialogue. He's less good at evoking place or character. The latter is, in some cases I suspect, wholly intentional as one of the points he appears to be making is that we impose stories on people. Certainly the most interesting characters remain almost wholly unknown to the reader which can be a little frustrating. In a book of this length and complexity, it is perhaps futile to look for clear themes, but as well as events repeating and the search for a beginning and end to stories, there is also a sense that people who behave like victims will become victims. And you don't want to be a victim in House's world as the murder rate is higher than in the complete works of Shakespeare.

The first book, Sutler has Stephen Sutler on the run in the Middle East and Europe, suspected of absconding with $53 million of US investment in re-building Iraqi infrastructure. Whilst on the run, he meets Eric, a young student obsessed with a book he is reading. While on the surface, Sutler is a conventional thriller caper, the believability of the story is not helped by some highly unlikely actions on behalf of Sutler that makes his situation worse. You don't have to be a hardened criminal to chose the right option faced with the situation of keeping a critical bit of information either a) about your person or b) just chuck it in the luggage compartment, particularly having realized that a choice needs to be made. Like many things though, an apparently illogical series of events features again later in the book, particularly in the third book.

The second book, The Massive is by far and away the strongest. It's the most political and is, in the main, a prequel to the events of Sutler. The focus is on the US civilians working to build a new Iraqi city in the desert. With just a few additions, this could stand alone as a powerful novel. I loved it.

The third book is the one Eric is reading in book one. The Kill tells of a mysterious serial killing in Naples of an American student which is made into a novel and then a film. The story is like a Russian doll and is full of layers and textures. In book four, one character notes that this book is 'not a very good book' and that's a little harsh. It's technically complex and clever, but doesn't necessarily make for a great read and as a central part to the project does, for me, struggle to live up to the mysterious role it has in the book as a whole.

The final book, The Hit is just plain creepy and concerns a reclusive man apparently trying to kill one of the men suspected of being the still missing Sutler. By this time I was feeling that the whole thing had been stretched about as far as it could go and the failure of House to tie up any number of lose ends is a little frustrating but one that will probably make those who loved the book more than I did somewhat evangelical about its structure.

Perhaps the quotation from the book that sums the piece up best comes late on when one character says: 'It isn't the story at all, but the conviction with which it is delivered. The money is something else, a distraction'. House delivers his stories with conviction.

It's certainly very clever. Although each book does stand alone, if you were to read them separately, I would make sure you read them in order. In my view, if you read the first two books in the series, you will have extracted the very best elements of the project though and any lose ends to the story remain that way even after 1000 plus pages.

Our grateful thanks to the kind people at Picador for sending us this book."

The main strength of The Kills is its originality but for another, albeit more straightforward, book that you might also enjoy is Flight by Adam Thorpe. If the multi-media aspect intrigues you, another book that dabbles with these aspects, although with less production quality, is Far South by David Enrique Spellman.

Booklists.jpg The Kills by Richard House is in the Man Booker Prize 2013.

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