“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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“The Hitman Diaries” by Danny King (2003)

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hitman“You know, it’s a lonely business being single.”

So here I am, back in modern London, happy to be breathing in the post-Industrial-Revolution air and not worrying about the mood of the governness. Of course, it’s not all plain sailing this side of history and in this novel, I fell in with a very difficult crowd indeed – hitmen.

Ian Bridges is a hitman, which is a job that definitely has its perks. He can work his own hours, the jobs are few and far between, they pay well, and he can get a new car whenever he wants. However, he isn’t happy – not by a long shot. After a stretch in prison, he emerged to find that he really wanted someone to settle down with. He’s been there and done it with prostitutes and one night stands and how he wants a wife, a woman he can love and spend the rest of his days with. However, with a job like his, most of the women he meets tend to wind up dead, and the ones that don’t probably won’t be too thrilled when they hear about his profession.

The novel opens with him on a date with Janet, although she’s a little overweight and by the time she’s eaten her own dinner and finished his as well, he’s decided that she probably isn’t the one for him. Outside, he offers her a lift home, but he is accosted by an angry man and his wife who claim that Ian spent the whole meal staring at them. Ian has a simple solution to the problem – he shoots the antagonistic pair in the head. Janet claims she won’t tell a soul what happened, which he ensures by shooting her too. He now has to get rid of the bodies, but not before he’s managed to rub out every witness that saw anything that evening. And it’s not an easy job.

Ian keeps meeting charming women, but every time, something comes up, usually the woman’s number. Eventually he has to surrender as he is given the task of training wannabe hitman Craig into becoming as ruthless and talented as him. The pair have little in common, but the relationship soon opens new doors, and Ian finds himself on a date with the charming and so far not-dead Adelaide. What could possibly go wong?

Despite the fact that this is one long narrative from a man who kills for a living (and shows almost no remorse for doing so), it’s actually a genuinely funny book and Ian is above all a really nice man. There is a certain irony about how all he wants is a woman to look after and care for, but he spends the rest of his time shooting anyone who gets in the way of his employers – JB and Logan. He seems honestly desperate with a lack of understanding as to why women don’t like him – he’s clean, sober and “works with computers”. He’s entirely non-threatening! Unless he’s got a Glock to hand, of course.

The deaths are chalked up in interesting detail and generally with a thick slice of comedy, as Ian describes the murders as if giving instructions on how to lay paving slabs or something equally mundane. The witnessed death toll is one of the highest of any books I’ve ever read, but it’s interesting and a funny look at a somewhat strange occupation.

Moving, with a surprisingly (but sincerely) sympathetic protagonist.