The Kills, by Richard House. Picador, £20

Rich in patterns and echoes, this vast novel wraps urgent stories of war in distracting riddles

Jonathan Gibbs
Saturday 07 September 2013 10:23

Richard House’s Man Booker-longlisted novel stands out from the pile, and not just for its length: 1,003 pages. It is a “novel in four books”, also available as separate e-books, with additional multimedia content online or embedded, although there is more than enough going on between the covers. As a whole, The Kills is an ambitious and complex meta-thriller that spins its many stories like plates, tantalising you at every turn with the thought that it might all be one big story, if only you could see through the noise to the pattern behind.

It starts, in “Sutler”, with a classic “running man” scenario. John Ford, aka Stephen Sutler, is given orders to abscond from his shadowy position working in a US military camp deep in the Iraqi desert, only to find himself fingered for the theft of a cool $53m. The book follows his escape, from happenstance to happenstance, and the attempts of HOSCO, a Halliburton-style “operational support” company, to track him down, although the fact that they’ve only sent one man to do so might mean they’re happy for him to stay lost.

“The Massive” rewinds to tell the story of that camp, a barely monitored waste-disposal facility, and the men who work there, unwittingly exposing themselves to the toxic by-products of the “burn pits” into which all kinds of matter is dumped, then doused in jet fuel and ignited – with a grenade. Here’s how we see it: “Less than a second later with a dull thud and a plant-like plume, spidery tufts and trails of mud sprang from the pit – in itself a disappointment – then, in one sudden conflagration, the air above the pit broke into a vast orange fireball. The heat shoved them back, then rose, startlingly dynamic.”

The whole book is written with this slightly reserved attention to detail, as if the author can’t quite bring himself to be either fully thriller-ish, or fully poetic. You feel the tug of John le Carré in one direction, and Don DeLillo in the other. The commentary on the iniquities of the occupation of Iraq, too, is worn lightly.

The fourth book, “The Hit”, picks up plot lines from the first and second, but it’s Book Three, “The Kill” that really threatens to turn the whole novel into a kind of Möbius strip, albeit one with frayed edges. Set in Naples, “The Kill” is a murder mystery treating a vicious dismembering in the basement of a Naples palazzo, the author of which, an American student, mysteriously disappeared before it was ever published. “The Kill”, however, is also a book that characters elsewhere in The Kills get to read, and watch the film of. One even seems to be wearing clothes that turn up in it. It all gets very confusing, and for those who enjoy readerly confusion this is a real treat.

The Kills is a page-turner, but the pages turn back as much as forwards, as you chase up echoes and repetitions – long-forgotten names and places, but also wasps, the smell of jasmine, the gesture of pulling a handbag strap over a shoulder – that might be clues, might be red herrings, might be the product of my own fevered mind. It’s a book that seems built to inspire internet forums devoted to its marginalia and “true meaning”, and a book absolutely to be read twice over. But there’s always the risk, isn’t there, that the red herrings were more fun than the bare, revealed truth?

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