“The Killing Kind” by Chris Holm

The Killing Kind by Chris HolmA hitman who only kills other hitmen. That’s a high-concept pitch akin to the “Dexter” series (about a serial killer who only kills other serial killers). The antihero of Holm’s thriller is Michael Hendricks, former special-ops in the U.S. military, who went off the grid after a couple of missions went horribly wrong. He even let his fiancée assume he was dead.

“Once his fever broke and the swelling in his brain abated, his memories returned—and with them, the crushing guilt of all the innocents he’d killed… As far as the military was concerned, Hendricks was dead—which meant Evie thought him dead as well. It was for the best, he told himself. He never could have faced her knowing what he’d become—a monster, a ghost.”

To atone for his past transgressions, Hendricks now identifies targets due to be assassinated by the Mafia (any Mafia will do: Russian, Italian, Cuban…). He offers to help them, for a price: “The smart ones paid. The ones that didn’t weren’t around too long to regret it.” The only people Hendricks will help are ones he considers “innocents.” Helping him track down the would-be victims is his computer-genius buddy Lester, who served with Hendricks in the military and came back with serious war wounds (both his legs were blown off).

Hendricks decides to help a seemingly hapless guy named Eric Purkhiser, an ex-IT dude in the witness protection program after turning on his former employers in the Atlanta mob. Eric made the news when he won a $6 million jackpot at a Kansas City casino. His new identity wasn’t enough to keep him off the mob’s radar. To collect the dough, Eric is required to return to the casino to pick up his giant novelty-sized check.

Ultimately, Eric’s big ceremony at the casino attracts no fewer than three hitmen: the one out to get Purkhiser; Hendricks, out to get Purkhiser’s would-be assassin; and one out to get Hendricks (i.e. a hitman hired to kill the hitman who only kills other hitmen). And then there are the two FBI agents tracking Hendricks.

Up until this point (about 1/3 of the way into the book), I was enjoying its combination of fast-paced action and black humor. But once the hitmen start squaring off, the body count goes sky-high and the book becomes incredibly violent, with descriptions of blood, gore and torture that almost left me nauseated. I’ve read so many thrillers that it’s pretty hard to shock me at this point, but I’ll admit that The Killing Kind, while well-written and plotted, was so hardboiled that I wasn’t 100% sure I’d be able to finish it. Nevertheless, I did (hey, I wanted to know what happened!), but after reading this book and Lee Child’s Make Me back-to-back, I think I’m ready to follow them up with something much, much lighter.

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“Make Me” by Lee Child

Make Me by Lee ChildWith rare exceptions, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels tend to follow a familiar formula: in the words of Malcolm Gladwell, they “involve, invariably, Reacher tumbling across some kind of malevolent conspiracy in the American heartland and killing everyone involved.” Make Me follows this formula to a T, but there are some especially disturbing twists in the latest chapter of the Reacher saga. One of the pleasures of reading a Child novel is that you know Reacher will wind up conquering the bad guys, often in partnership with a kick-ass female counterpart whom he loves and leaves after he’s saved the day. (Reacher, like Papa, is a rolling stone.) But Make Me suggests Reacher may be mortal after all.

As usual, Reacher just happens to stumble upon a nightmarish crime and, since he has nothing better to do, get involved in solving it. He is riding the train across the vast, empty prairies and decides on a whim to disembark at the small town of Mother’s Rest, mainly because he’s curious about the origin of the name. Figuring there must be a museum or commemorative stone, he instead runs into a woman named Michelle Chang, an ex-FBI agent turned private investigator looking for her missing partner. Keever disappeared from Mother’s Rest without a trace, before he could brief Chang about exactly what was going on. Reacher decides to help her out, and together, they discover the horrible truth about the town.

At one point, they team up with a Los Angeles Times reporter who seems to have the world’s largest expense account (it turns out getting to the bottom of the Mother’s Rest conspiracy requires a lot of travel), but primarily it’s the two of them against the world. Reacher suffers a concussion in a confrontation with a hired goon, and while he usually shakes off his injuries, this one proves to be frustratingly persistent. Chang also seems a little less disposable than the women he’s dealt with in the past. Does Make Me mark a turning point for the long-lived (this is book #20) series? We’ll have to wait a while to find out, as the next book (coming out this fall) is a prequel, set during an earlier period in Reacher’s life.

I tore through Make Me in a couple days, helped along by the fact that it’s been relentlessly rainy, and what better to do on a wet weekend than curl up with a book? However, when I got to the big reveal of what was actually happening in Mother’s Rest, I will admit that it was a million times more shocking than anything I could ever have imagined. I woke up in the middle of the night after I finished the book, suffused with a feeling of dread. That may or may not count as a recommendation; I don’t know. It depends on if you want to read a book that may literally haunt your dreams.

“The Ex” by Alafair Burke

"The Ex" by Alafair Burke.I enjoyed All Dressed In White, co-written by Mary Higgins Clark & Alafair Burke, so much that I decided I should try out one of Burke’s own novels. The Ex is her newest book, but she’s written at least 10 others (as well as numerous law-review articles, like “Reconciling Professional Ethics and Prosecutorial Power: The No Contact Rule Debate,” which I suspect isn’t much of a page-turner).

Burke, a law professor who previously worked as an deputy district attorney, brings an insider’s grasp of the legal profession to her story about a lawyer who winds up defending her ex-fiancé. Jack Harris stands accused of committing a ghastly crime: murdering three people in cold blood. He swears he’s innocent, but the fact that one of the victims was a man Jack bitterly hated makes it look like an open-and-shut case. Complicating matters is Jack’s daughter, Buckley, a young teen whom he’s been raising as a single dad after his wife Molly was killed some years before.

Buckley is the one who initially reaches out to Olivia Randall, begging her to defend Jack. Because Olivia and Jack had a complicated history—one which comes into greater focus as the book progresses—she’s reluctant, but their relationship was long in the past, so it’s not a problem ethically. And due to her cheating on him during their engagement, which ultimately caused its end, Olivia feels she owes it to Jack to provide him with a vigorous defense; perhaps if he goes free, she can finally let go of some of the guilt she’s carried for so many years.

I found The Ex to be just as riveting as All Dressed In White, and while Olivia (who drinks too much and is having an affair with a married man) is more of a flawed heroine than that book’s Laurie Moran, I’ve always been OK with protagonists who are less than perfect. Besides, The Ex is something of a redemption story; Olivia has to forgive herself before she can move on with her life. No one is harder on her than she is on herself.

My only complaint would be that one of the plot twists reminded me a little too much of a similar case on “Law & Order,” but that show was on the air for 20 years, so it probably covered just about everything first. After reading both The Ex and All Dressed In White, I’m definitely looking forward to exploring Burke’s previous novels.

Side Note: Burke has an adorable French Bulldog named Double. A minor character in The Ex is “a low-level drug dealer” named Double Simpson. I have to imagine this is not a coincidence, and I just love the fact that she named a character after her dog!

“The Royal We” by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan

The Royal WeFor over a decade now, I’ve been spending my tea breaks with Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, the ladies behind the funny fashion blog Go Fug Yourself. As a self-employed person, I usually don’t have anyone around to chat with, but Heather and Jessica (and the site’s army of commenters) are always there, ready to make me swoon (Cate Blanchett, so beautiful!) or gasp (Kim Kardashian, nooooo!).

Cocks and Morgan have always been fans of the British royal family and their style (or lack thereof), so perhaps it’s not surprising that they’d choose to set their first novel for adults (after a couple of YA outings) in the royal world. The launching point seems to have been a thought experiment: “What if Kate Middleton had been an American commoner instead of a British one?”

The Yank who catches the prince’s eye in this story is the feisty, funny Rebecca; she and Prince Nicholas meet at college, where she’s spending a year abroad, and eventually bond over a shared love of cheesy American TV. You could spend hours mapping the parallels between the fictional story and the real-life one (Nick’s mother is absent, though for quite a different reason than Diana’s disappearance from Prince William’s life; Rebecca’s twin sister, Lacey, has a definite Pippa Middleton vibe, and Nick’s ginger-haired kid brother Freddie is totally Harry), but the main thing that you get in The Royal We that is missing from the real-life Kate & Wills love story is the feelings. What would it be like to fall in love with a crown prince, and realize that his chief priority will always be the country he’s expected to lead someday? How do you deal with the tabloid press that’s ready to pounce if you show the slightest vulnerability? Will the in-laws, including the octogenarian Queen, ever accept you as one of them?

The authors have stuffed the book full of scandals, heartbreak, humor, juicy insider details and, most of all, a cracking good love story. It’s a long book, over 400 pages, perfect for a cross-country plane ride (which is where I read it); but when I reached the last page, I must admit that my reaction was, “Wait, it’s over already?” Not every loose end is tied up, and while the paperback edition coming out this spring promises a “bonus chapter,” this book is dying for a sequel. I hope that along with chronicling the fashion foibles of Hollywood’s elite, Cocks and Morgan are also busy dreaming up Bex and Nick’s next adventures.