... a dazzlingly shapeshifting novel that, like its antihero, only pretends to be easy to pigeonhole ... Handling each genre with unshowy aplomb, King creates a kind of 'Best Of' album of his (non-fantasy) work, given cohesion by Billy’s story. As it’s neither overlong nor overfull of adorably quirky kids, Billy Summers is also set apart by being free of the self-indulgent tendencies of his recent output. Disciplined but adventurous, equally good at action scenes and in-depth psychology, King shows with this novel that, at 73, he’s a writer back at the top of his game.
It meanders, it pays only the scantest regard to the rules of narrative structure, it indulges gladly in both casual stereotyping and naked political point-scoring. And it’s [King's] best book in years ... King has always excelled at sketching everyman’s US, enriching the details into a minor epic register. It’s what elevates him above his genre peers, and it’s in full force here ... By the inevitable, biblical climax, unlikely plot contrivances or dated sexual politics are forgiven, because we can’t help but be won over by the eternal figure of the lone individual making a stand ... He may always be considered a horror novelist, but King is doing the best work of his later career when the ghosts are packed away and the monsters are all too human.
[King] actually is as good at the hard-boiled prose – in this case, the tale of an extremely effective assassin trying to get out after one last job – as he is the scary stuff ... King’s known for his literary villains, yet in creating his killer title protagonist, he exquisitely gets into the mind of a hitman and roots around in there to figure out what kind of person would do wetwork, the loneliness involved for those who choose that as a career path and the effect it would have on friends and loved ones ... Those worried he’s gone full Raymond Chandler, never fear: King makes it clear that Billy Summers very much exists in his creepily familiar world. It’s also very much a part of ours as well, with a few Donald Trump references and a foreshadowing of the COVID-19 crisis as Billy hunkers down and has to watch life go by outside, less because of a pandemic and more because of his morally questionable chosen profession ... The biggest crime here, however, would be missing out on Billy Summers and King’s new reign as a pulp genius
... clearly the work of a writer in retrospective mood: taking stock, paying his dues ... A lot of writerly angst seems encoded in all this; lingering pique, perhaps, from ancient debates about the literary merits of King’s hugely popular fiction...It certainly makes for an interestingly complicated subtext, which is soon matched by the text itself as Billy starts planning his own counterscheme for getting out alive (and getting paid) — an elaborate ploy involving serial identities, multiple disguises, secret addresses and a daunting quantity of phones and computers ... King layers it all in patiently, detailing the little worlds of the downtown office and the residential suburb where Billy whiles away his days and nights, using the memoir to reveal Billy’s grim back story, and staging small lapses of judgment on Billy’s part that come dangerously close to exposing him. By the time his mark arrives the sense of what’s at stake in the shot Billy will finally take has been cranked up to the max, and the first of several lavish action scenes erupts with a satisfying release of pent-up tension ... Here, it has to be said, the book stumbles. Aside from the creaky coincidence, there’s something at once prudish and prurient about the ensuing relationship that’s hard to take. Post #MeToo, the conventional sexual dynamics of the pairing obviously wouldn’t work, and King tries hard to square them with those of our own moment, keeping things chaste while also keeping sex very much to the fore. The result is a weird sort of latter-day Hays Code effect, all separate bedrooms and nobly resisted temptation, offset by graphic anatomy shots and regular moments of accidental intimacy ... That these significant flaws don’t totally derail the book is a testament to its author’s undimmed energy and confidence. His eye for detail, especially at the dreckier end of roadside culture, is sharp enough to keep the long car rides that crisscross the novel lively and vivid, and he remains in possession of a seemingly effortless verbal flow that surges on over bumps and banalities in the story line (must the bad guy always turn out to be a pedophile?) without letting up. But next to classics of the One Last Job novel and its close variants — including my own favorite, George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle — it seems driven more by formula, in the end, than the real reckoning with fate and mortality that the genre, at its best, affords.
As far-fetched as the thriller plot might be, King wants to ground it in reality enough so that his readers willingly suspend their disbelief when he needs them to. Eventually, Billy’s plans come to fruition, though not in the way he expects. And Billy Summers the novel takes a sharp, unexpected twist that propels it into new territory. To talk much about the second half of the book is to rob it of some of its ingenuity. A new character joins the cast, one as almost as dynamic as Billy, and together they form a formidable, if unlikely, team ... the perfect summertime treat—solidly crafted, deliciously suspenseful and surprisingly heartfelt. King plays to all his strengths: deep characterization, clever plotting and this time an ending that seems both logical and well earned ... an incisive character study wrapped inside a road novel, coupled with a very unconventional love story.
King does such a good job of getting us to bond with Billy that we find ourselves hoping for a successful assassination. King also deserves applause for resisting the urge to pander to readers' short attention spans. Thanks in large part to Hollywood, thriller fans these days expect something—or someone—to be blown up as soon as the story starts. But King falls back on traditional pacing, taking time to define the characters and establish the situation before launching the action. We're 150 pages into the novel, and Billy still hasn't even set eyes on Allen. But don't worry; there are still more than 300 pages to go, and King has plenty of mayhem on his mind.
... a first act of stunning formal control gives way to a second half that is frequently unfocused, lurid, and, at times, clichéd. All of which builds to a climax that seems to pull from the darkest recesses of home-brewed Twitter and cable news paranoia; it’s wish fulfillment for those living in a world where the rich and powerful orchestrate acts of monstrous evil, while we’re all stuck at home, brokenly clicking along. The action then settles, almost miraculously, into an epilogue that brings the book’s best qualities back to the forefront ... a delicious engine of tension ... King has written so many author-protagonists over the years that it’s tipped over from a running joke into simply being part of the background radiation of his oeuvre. But he’s rarely put this much time and energy into depicting the actual cathartic work of the job ... The rapture with which Billy realizes he can finally peek out from behind the masks and speak in his own voice (if only to himself) could have been corny in another book, but in King’s hands, it comes off as infectiously genuine. In addition to those loftier ideas, these excerpts are also a chance for King to engage in a bit of metafictional gamesmanship, crafting text that reads like the work of a gifted beginner, distinct from the more familiar tone used in the rest of the book ... At least in the early going, the bulk of Billy Summers is a delightfully tense crime thriller ... All of this holds true until the halfway point, when, with the pull of a trigger, King jettisons huge swaths of the tension that made Billy Summers such a compulsive, memorable read. What replaces it is a sort of surreal vigilante road trip tale, shot through with sexual violence and revenge, which adds a seemingly unintentional queasy element to the book’s central relationships. The complicated layers of identity fall away, and what we’re left with verges on the simplicity of a morality play ... it’s strange that the portions of the book in which its hero fritters away his days playing Monopoly with local kids are far more compelling than those in which he roams the country, executing crime lords and rapists. Given King’s experimentation with serialization over the years, it’s hard not to wish that the two stories—and that is, ultimately, what this feels like—could have had more separation between them, if only so the second half didn’t suffer so much by comparison ... It’s the writing that saves Billy Summers—both the prose itself and the depiction of the act. Together, they give the book the lifeline it needs as its ripped-from-the-headlines ending looms. Even in the most hoary of crime scenarios, King can still build tidal waves of tension from the smallest deviation from plan, sending Constant Readers plunging deep into the flop-sweat insecurities of his heroes as they watch a situation potentially spiral out of control. In situating Billy’s atonement in communication and creation, not violence, King manages to find a space for redemption that might otherwise have rung hollow. For a book whose only supernatural element is the occasional looming ruin of the distant Overlook Hotel—where another King writer stand-in once fared far more poorly with his isolation and 'gifts'—Billy Summers is winningly optimistic about the life of the creative mind. More than almost any other King book in recent memory, it’s a product of its time, but not a victim of it.
The plot of his latest novel, the tale of an Iraq war veteran turned hitman, takes such an unexpected turn halfway through you could argue [King] has become too prolific for his own good and produced two novels that just happen to share the same title ... It’s brilliantly set up, as the solitary killer becomes part of the community, with backyard barbecues and friendly neighbours mixed with meetings with the organised crime boss who paid for his finger on the trigger ... The unexpected arrival changes Billy and the book completely as his life—and the plot—becomes more complicated, but the unlikely pairing of the self-aware killer and the innocent victim never quite convinces, and the story drifts towards an uneasy conclusion. King devotees will be delighted by the uneasy mix of dark crime and a classic odd couple American road trip, but I can’t help feeling the author took his eye off the target just as he let Billy hit his.
The first, superior half of the novel follows Summers as he goes undercover as a novelist doing research for his newest book ... King writes beautifully about both the seemingly humdrum details of small town living, the seedier backwaters of America and of the idiosyncrasies of Summers, as compelling a main character as he’s ever written. The second half of the book segues into a more traditional action-packed, hyper-violent revenge stor, as Summers seeks to track down the crime bosses ... He’s conveniently paired with a love interest, Alice, a somewhat underwritten and overly sexualized female character who mostly serves as a springboard for Summers’ plans and schemes ... King’s latest is a refreshingly straightforward, often wildly entertaining and intricately plotted tale of revenge and redemption.
The passages where Billy writes his life story are some of the best in the book. King’s adept at shifting voices ... It’s when he finds an audience for his story that the book really starts to find its groove. Before that, it’s heavy on inner monologue as Billy thinks through all the possible consequences of his actions and the motivations of the people around him. The plot is straightforward and not really very compelling until about the midway point, when Alice Maxwell enters the story ... For readers who are new to the King canon, there are literally dozens of other books — most of them are also movies or TV shows at this point — with which you’re better off beginning your Stephen King journey.
This engaging, multi-layered tale is a genre-bending mix of crime novel, war memoir and touching love story by a master storyteller. What’s never in doubt is King’s command of the arena where it unfolds: small-town America ... This unforgiving world, from the barren streets now laid waste by industries outsourced to China to the decency of most of its inhabitants, is portrayed in sharp detail ... The account of the battle for Falluja...is visceral and enthralling ... Alice does not appear until page 205 but then the story takes off. The real strength of the tale is their relationship. Alice is no passive victim and King gives her plenty of agency.
Billy Summers is an ambitious, controlled and compelling shapeshifter of a book: combat novel, platonic romance, noir caper, portrait of an artist coming of belated age. Its pleasures are numerous, and it touches the mind, heart and nervous system in equal measure.
King weaves Billy’s novel into this one, first a few paragraphs, then pages and chapters, and it’s a hell of a story ... Billy’s rescue of Alice Maxwell puts him at high risk ... Their complicated relationship pivots the plot in surprising directions, including a road trip that crisscrosses the country ... King slows the book down a bit as Alice and Billy recover and try to figure each other out, but then he cranks it back into high gear as they set out on a mission of vengeance against a genuine monster.
A love letter to the transformative effects of putting words on paper that masquerades as a boilerplate action-thriller, the novel doesn’t always fire on all cylinders, but the impassioned argument Mr. King makes for the role of writing in healing traumas is heartfelt and affecting ... There wouldn’t be much of a novel if everything went off without a hitch, of course, and what unfolds both during and after that climactic moment is fast-paced and cleverly constructed, even if it isn’t entirely original — there’s a whole lot of Luc Besson’s 1994 cerebral action film The Professional here, and maybe even more of Antoine Fuqua’s 2014 vigilante movie The Equalizer ... Even if the capital 'T' thriller portions of the book feel a bit derivative, they are still written with Mr. King’s legendary eye for detail, and his ability to immerse readers in the mindsets of fictional characters serves the story well. The fans he refers to as Constant Readers may also find themselves smiling at some late-book references to a certain haunted hotel in Colorado ... There are some missteps: for example, Mr. King occasionally tosses in foreshadowing about COVID-19, even though it has no bearing on the plot and none of the book actually takes place during lockdown, which is puzzling. On the other hand, the book shines the most when it talks about the act of writing. Billy is able to process his myriad traumas through the act of remembering his past and writing about it, and witnessing this deeply-scarred man discover a new way of seeing himself and his place in the world is beautifully resonant. Mr. King’s sheer pleasure in the alchemy of turning mere words into entire universes is on full display here, and it is contagious — not just for Billy, but perhaps for Constant Readers as well.
... wholly compulsive ... [Bill Summers's alter ego] Paul Sparks’s voice has warmth, drive and versatility, and King lards the narrative with literary reference...and jibes against Trump, offering teasing glimpses of The Shining’s spooky Overlook Hotel in an elegiac finale. A tour de force.
King goes in an intriguing new direction ... Though this novel includes many classic King touchstones, its dedication to realism and intense, almost meditative focus on the titular main character make it a standout among his works ... King’s trademark skill with suspense and action is on display in several thrilling set pieces, including the breathlessly paced original hit, but this novel also stretches his literary ambitions. Much of Billy’s autofiction appears on the page in a book within a book that gives readers a deeper understanding of its main character. And while Billy shifts between personas and dons physical disguises with aplomb, his internal self comes more clearly into focus as he writes about his experiences and interrogates the stories he’s been telling himself about his past—and about himself ... By taking control of our stories, King suggests, we can begin to heal, find hope and even discover a truth that is more profound than reality. These resonant ideas provide a somber counterpoint to the action in this contemplative thriller.
King has multiple novels in play here—a thriller, at least two coming-of-age stories, and a knockout road novel—and he knits them together beautifully, never missing a stitch ... King has never been better than he is here at wrapping readers into a propulsive, many-tentacled narrative—complete with a perfectly orchestrated, moving ending.
That story within a story has a nice twist, and Billy’s battered copy of Zola’s book plays a part, too ... Murder most foul and mayhem most entertaining. Another worthy page-turner from a protean master.
... [a] tripwire-taut thriller ... King meticulously lays out the details of Billy’s trade, his Houdini-style escapes, and his act to look simpler than he is, but the novel’s main strength is a story within a story ... This is another outstanding outing from a writer who consistently delivers more than his readers expect.