The Kills by Richard House

Having spent some time wondering why historical settings have been so popular in this year’s long list, we come to a novel which is categorically, unequivocally contemporary. Not only in its subject matter – an American building project in Iraq from which $53 million is embezzled by a man using a false identity is just the start – but in its delivery. The four novels that make up the doorstop that is the hardback are enhanced in the digital version with video content and character voiceovers. I stuck with the traditional version. My arms may be more toned as a result, but I wonder whether I missed a trick.

Richard House does not need my approval. The Kills has garnered wonderful reviews and Philip Hensher, in his summary of the Man Booker-longlisted titles for The Spectator, called it the ‘novel everyone should read.’ In interviews, House comes across as confident and secure, enjoying his success without feeling any need to apologise for or qualify it (quite rightly). This confidence oozes through The Kills – House happily picks up a character, examines him or her minutely for long enough to make the reader care, then dumps them unceremoniously. To care is to suffer, perhaps, and the methodology is in keeping with the fact that life is cheap in the world House has created. But it made for a reading experience that I found ultimately unsatisfying. And after the finely crafted prose of Macleod and Catton, House’s much broader brush strokes, complete with paint splashes, felt careless.

There’s no carelessness in producing work of such scope and scale, of course, but I felt that the Kills needed more discipline. Like a good gravy, the ingredients are all there – character, plot, tension, complexity, even metafiction in volume three – but they need to be concentrated. This hard-boiled thriller could do with boiling down.

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