It's no secret that I love absurdist humour, and the British do absurdism better than most. From Monty Python to Blackadder to Douglas Adams, Britain does it best. The Hitman Diaries attempts to continue this national tradition of elevating the obscure, the mundane, or the morally ambiguous into absurd and hilarious situations that entertain and enlighten all at once. Danny King doesn't quite succeed in this respect, and I'm not really sure what to make of this book.
I have reservations, but none of them are about the opening chapters. Our hitman, Ian Bridges, is having a date with a woman who works at a local candy shop. On their way out of the restaurant, two drunken patrons accost Ian, and before he can think better of it, his instincts take over and he shoots them dead. Then, of course:
I swung round once more and immediately found my final target. I was just about to pull the trigger when I suddenly remembered she was my date.
"I'm sorry," I told Janet, the gun a bare three inches from her forehead. "I'm a hitman."
"I won't tell anyone," she blubbed and covered her mouth with her little chubby hands.
"I know," I said. "I know you won't," then blew her brains out. People always say they won't tell anyone when there's a gun to their head but they always do. I lowered the automatic and took a moment out to let what I had just done sink in.
A minor misunderstanding results in three murders. King establishes Ian's prowess at dating (zero) and how integral being a hitman is to his being (so much so it's automatic). In the process of transporting these bodies to his boat for disposal, Ian attracts the attention of three more people, so of course he has to silence them too. Suddenly, in 20 pages, Ian has already killed six people—none of them assigned hits. The next time he speaks to his contact in the organization, we learn that this is not the first time it's happened:
"Please don't tell me you rubbed her out again!" he said, shaking his head, unable to look at me.
"It wasn't my fault. I couldn't help it."
"You couldn't help it? You took some bird out for dinner and you couldn't help murdering her. What's wrong with you, are you some sort of nutcase or something?"
"Look, I was compromised, I had no choice. Don't worry, everything's all right. There was no problem." …
… "What about your connection?"
"Other than buying papers and the odd chocolate bar from her, there isn't one." I told Logan about how I asked her out. About how I'd followed her home and asked her well away from the shop, the security cameras and anyone that knew her, and as I did so I couldn't help but wonder if I'd done that by accident or design. Design probably. Not with the intention of killing her, you understand, I probably just didn't want anyone seeing me asking a fat bird out. Or, more likely, I didn't want to risk the possibility of anyone seeing me getting blown out by a fat bird.
Not only does King juxtapose the grim job of a hitman with Ian's inability to connect to women (or even respect them), but, as he later confirms, he makes it clear that Ian is a sociopath (or, as Logan puts it, a nice "clockwork psychopath"). His instinct is to solve a problem by eliminating the people involved, contain the situation. He subconsciously follows this pattern in his daily life. And he has a hard time connecting to people emotionally, has had this problem his entire life.
It's mostly coincidental that I've read two books with sociopath first-person narrators in the past month. Unlike I am Not a Serial Killer's John Cleaver, however, Ian is comfortable with his role in life. He isn't a serial killer either. Rather, he has been moulded by some unscrupulous villains into an on-demand killer. And the over-the-top humour just as often reinforces this fact rather than hiding it. At one point, Ian lists all the various methods for killing people that come to his mind, and then goes on to examine some of the more common methods, such as stabbing or shooting, in greater detail, listing their advantages and disadvantages. His tone is practical, almost dismissive, which makes it very funny, but also very dark. This is a man who knows how to kill people, does it for a living, and doesn't feel guilty about it.
So how is Ian ever going to get a girl?
Ian's search for love seems to be the central plot of The Hitman Diaries, if a central plot it has. From poor candy-counter Janet to Angela to Adelaide, Ian doesn't have a lot of luck with women. He has issues with his dead mother, with whom he is constantly having conversations (although when he mentions this to Adelaide, he also says he's aware that she's dead and he's not actually talking to her). Oh, and he kills people for a living. Coupled with his inability to connect to people in general, this makes it difficult for Ian to have a stable relationship. I'm not sure I'd say that Ian is misogynistic, because as a sociopath I don't think he really hates anything, including women. He is just brutally honest when evaluating the women in his life: Janet is a "fat bird;" Angela is too devoted to her Alzheimer's-affected mother; Adelaide has a poor choice in roommates. He sees other people and their relationships in a stark, almost economical sense; where we might see a sweet girl who is a little overweight or a woman who is caring for her ailing mother, Ian sees people with liabilities.
It's fascinating to watch Ian balance his work with his almost-nonexistent social life, and much of the tension in The Hitman Diaries arises from the collision of the two. This is pretty standard when you're writing about something like the life of a hitman, and while I don't want to spoil the ending, you can probably figure out how it goes just from that hint. And Danny King's writing is mostly up to the task; it is perhaps even the best part of the novel, containing the type of witty social commentary that I love.
So why can't I love The Hitman Diaries more? I've been pondering that question for a week. I think, as with many genre-straddling books like this one, the problem lies within the combination of genre elements. The Hitman Diaries doesn't quite work as a love story between Ian and Adelaide. The complications that arise from his profession never congeal into a real conflict until much too close toward the end. None of the characters, besides Ian, are in any way multidimensional or well-rounded.
This is a book that, when viewed from one angle, looks complete and satisfactory. Turn it slightly, however, and you will quickly see how thin it is. There are great lines in this book, many more than what I've quoted here. I loved reading about Ian's assignments, listening to him describe how he will stake out a target and plan the assassination. I liked reading about his relationships too, and their invariably messy ends. But I needed more of both of these elements, and The Hitman Diaries doesn't deliver on that.