“Kill Your Boss” by Shane Kuhn (2014)

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“If you’re reading this, you’re a new employee at Human Resources, Inc.”

I remember reading once that you’re more likely to die prematurely being a character in a soap opera than you are in a war. In literature, it seems that the odds are stacked even more against you. There are so few books that don’t involve the two constants somewhere in their narrative – love and death. And in literature, we meet not only the victims and those tracking down the killers, but we get to know quite a lot of the killers too. John Lago, for example.

John Lago is a hitman for Human Resources, Inc. They are a large company of trained assassins who will take on any job for the right money and scrub someone off the face of the Earth before you can blink. They specialise in crooked white-collar workers by using assassins in their early twenties who pose as interns in their companies. Interns, it seems, are easily forgotten, can seemlessly blend into their surroundings and never draw attention to themselves, making them perfect sleeper agents. John is twenty-five and on his last assignment, taking on a role at Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an enormous New York law firm. One of the top men is selling witness protection data, and they need to find out which one it is and take him out.

John begins to blend into his office as usual, but things are complicated when he meets and falls for Alice who works for the same company and is clearly into him. Distracted by such hindrances as romance and emotions, John is finding it a little harder than usual to find a way to his target, and matters are complicated further when he hacks into Alice’s computer and discovers that she’s an undercover FBI agent investigating the very man he’s trying to kill. John will need all of his wits about him as he tackles his final challenge. Once he’s done this, he can retire with sacks of money, have plastic surgery and disappear for good. That is, if he survives…

The book is written as a guide to new recruits to HR Inc., and indeed in the USA it was published as The Intern’s Handbook, which is also the name John gives his book in-universe. He is a desperately unpleasant character, which may seem obvious given that he’s a hitman, but I’ve read about them before and some of them are much more likeable, oddly. While there are redeeming features and much is made of his horrific, abusive and neglectful childhood shunted around between foster homes and the care system, there’s no way of getting around the fact he committed his first murder aged eight and is recruited by Bob at HR Inc. when he’s twelve. Unpleasant perhaps, but not without humour. John is quite funny, as is the book in general, and the concept of planting faceless interns into companies to bring down criminals is a really good one.

However, all in all, while it had some interesting moments and a cast of rather fascinating characters, it lacked any really satisfying payoff and by the time you’re there it’s almost impossible to work out what was true and what wasn’t after all. Not in the sense of “it was all a dream” which would be unforgivable, but just in that when you’re dealing with secret agencies, there are always more lies being spread around than you might realise. Naturally as one might expect of the theme, there are a lot of very violent scenes and complicated fights that are described in painstaking detail. One or two are fine, but you become somewhat desensitised to it towards the end and the suspension of disbelief that John is surviving all these attacks threatens to fail. It was an interesting concept and I enjoyed it, but it feels like one of those that I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about six months down the line.

A fun, quick read, and perhaps deserving of cult classic status one day.

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“Bad Monkeys” by Matt Ruff (2007)

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bad monkeys“It’s a room an uninspired playwright might conjure while staring at a blank page: White walls.White ceiling. White floor.”

We like to think, I hope, that, while there are people in this world capable of incredible evil – regardless of whether or not they actually think they’re doing the right thing or not – they are heavily outnumbered by the forces of good who will always save the day.

Bad Monkeys is the story of “the organisation”, a crack team that scours the world fighting evil. Jane Charlotte is their newest recruit and after brushing up against them in her teenage years when she accidentally discovers that her school janitor is a serial killer, she is left in limbo for two decades before she is properly recruited to the department of Bad Monkeys, the team that kills those who perform evil deeds.

But Jane has killed someone who wasn’t on her assignment list, and she’s now in a stark white room being questioned by a doctor who can’t tell if she’s lying, insane or, most terrifyingly of all, telling the truth. She whips up a world in which she is tracking down the Mandrills, a rival organisation responsible for baseless evil, accompanied by a homeless woman called Annie, three men called Robert, and some clowns, all the while armed with a gun that kills people by natural causes and drugs that affect the laws of physics. As Jane’s story is picked apart by the doctor, it becomes clear that absolutely nothing is as it seems.

The book is very clear in that Jane and her fellow operatives are responsible for tackling “evil” rather than “crime”. They have almost limitless information on every human on the planet and can track down everything about you in minutes, not only knowing, say, what books you’ve taken out of libraries, but how often you’ve read them and which paragraphs particularly appealed to you. Although in theory good, the organisation has some strange technology, forefront of most is the Eyes Only technology. These are small, almost invisible lenses that can see and hear whatever’s going on in a room, and are generally placed on a pair of eyes somewhere in a room. This means any poster, photo, painting, billboard, newspaper, book cover, or even banknote could be watching you. (When reading this earlier I thought I was safe, then decided I might not actually have been in an eye-free room all day.)

The book is, frankly, insane, but I really enjoyed it. The secret agency trope has been done to death (not that that’s a complaint;I like a secret world hidden just under our own), but not ever quite as maniacally as it’s been shown here. It’s a madcap romp through a study of what makes someone good or evil, and how the two states marry up. It also works well as a thriller, with constant twists and turns in the story, and explaining things the wrong way round so they’re never happening exactly as we imagine they might be.

I definitely came away satisfied, and with a desire to find out more, but, just like in real life, some things are best kept secret. A stellar, quick read that might be a bit nuts, but also works wonderfully as a genuinely tense thriller.