Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason

Tomislov Bokšić, AKA Toxic, top hit man for the Croatian mob in NYC, is on the run. His latest target inconveniently turns out to be an undercover agent FBI agent. His spotless record ruined, Toxic has to leave his good life — prime apartment, large screen TV, voluptuous girlfriend — is directed by his boss to lay low with the LPP (lowest possible profile) in Zagreb. At the airport he finds the FBI watching his departure gate and he has to improvise. Unfortunately this is at the expense of the Rev. David Friendly who happens to be alone in the men's room with Toxic. With Friendly's clerical colar, passport, and ticket, Toxic is soon on the way to Reykjavik, Iceland.

I've been sitting on this review for a while but not because I didn't like it. On the contrary, I love it and look forward to reading more by this author. Rather I've been perplexed how to start, what tone to take, how to describe The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning.

Someone is likely to be offended by something in this book —religiously, socially, politically, sexually, nationally, and some -lys I haven't thought of — it has them all. It also has a dark, off-the-wall humor that had me snorting nearly every page and annoying my wife by insisting on reading passages.
Munita [his girlfriend] was living in Peru until her family got killed in a terrorist bombing. Then she moved to New York and found a job on Wall Street. It so happened that her first day of work was 9/11. On our first trip to Croatia together, she witnessed two killings. I have to admit that one of them was by my own hand, but the other was totally accidental. I thought it was quite a romantic scene, actually. We were having dinner in Mirko's restaurant when the guy sitting at the table next to us got a bullet through his brain. Some of his blood splattered into Munita's glass of wine. I didn't tell her. She was having red anyway.
I love the way those lean, crisp sentences lead to a punch line that is as disgusting as it is dark humor.

Toxic is an unlikely likable character: he thinks back with some fondness on his days as a soldier in the Serbo-Croatian war where he shot more people than are in his family tree; he take pride in his clean record of one bullet, one kill; he likes a nice post-killing nap. But with his  trains of thought that might take off at odd tangents, his wry comments and observations, the reader enjoys the ride as Toxic tries to understand the Icelandic people and culture and perhaps make a new life for himself. Helgason does indulge in good-natured fun at the expense of his fellow Icelanders: referring to Icelandic as the lunar language after seeing the stark landscape in the in flight magazine; mangling the pronunciation of names; shock at the low crime rate; the lack of guns. He made me want to visit Iceland.

This style of writing is difficult to do well. The dark humor can easily come across as forced and fall flat. It takes a deft hand to keep the humor fresh and edgy. This is the author's first book in English but he is able to take the venerable "stranger in a strange land" trope and give it a sharp, witty, and occasionally grotesque edge which is no mean feat since the first person narrative voice means that this is a character driven monologue of Toxic's musings.

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning is a fun read. It is mostly on the light end of crime genre but with sharp edges that keep it interesting. Amongst the dark humor, the author includes passages that illustrate how desensitized we have become to violence. I suspect that some people will find this jarring and out of place but I like an author willing to go out of bounds if it gives insight into a character. Helgason is an author on my watch list and I wouldn't mind if he found a way to return to Toxic's world.