Portland author Chris Holm takes a high-concept thriller plot and makes it his own in “The Killing Kind.”

Michael Hendricks served his country in Afghanistan as a covert operative, working as part of a “false-flag unit” that specialized in missions the Pentagon didn’t want to hear about. After a roadside bomb killed most of his comrades-in-arms and left him presumed dead, Hendricks decided to atone in an unusual way for the sins he committed while in uniform.

Once back in the United States, Hendricks devotes himself to killing only other hit men, giving their intended targets the opportunity to pay for the privilege of staying alive. It costs them 10 times the original bounty to see their would-be assassins put out of commission. Hendricks rationalizes his existence as a kind of retribution: “(He) figured that once you agree to kill an innocent, you deserve whatever’s coming to you. That ridding the world of people who murder for a living was some kind of public service.”

One loose end Hendricks can’t bring himself to tie up is his feelings for his former fiancee, Evelyn Walker. Believing Hendricks dead, she has moved on to marriage and impending motherhood. Hendricks surreptitiously checks on her from time to time, a dangerous habit he wants to break.

From the Bait Shop, a bar in Portland’s Old Port, Hendricks’ military buddy Lester Myers provides the intel that allows Hendricks to plan his kills. What neither ex-solider knows is that Hendrick’s movements are being tracked by two opposing forces. Alexander Engleman, another contract killer who enjoys his occupation a little too much, takes the assignment of finding and exterminating whoever is taking out his fellow hit men. Meanwhile, two FBI special agents, Hank Garfield and Charlotte Thompson, begin to see similar patterns in their data. The various factions converge on a riverboat-themed casino near Kansas City, where still another killer is preparing to murder someone who has double-crossed the Mob.

Hendricks is a classic antihero, capable of murder but with a code that allows him to maintain a lonely existence as a killer for hire. He possesses an instinctive understanding of military tactics, firearms and bladed weapons and the use of shaped charges, but he still isn’t sure how he was selected by the military to be a covert operative: “But it seemed likelier to him their barrage of psychological examinations revealed some dark aspect of his psyche,” Holm writes, “like the shadow of a tumor on an X-ray, that told them he was the killing kind.”

The author of the hard-boiled fantasy “Collectors” series, Holm has written many award-winning short stories that have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the Best American Mystery Stories. His style here is clean and uncluttered, no-nonsense but flexible enough to serve up either high-octane violence or straight-faced dark humor.

“The Killing Kind” may remind some readers of the cat-and-mouse thrillers of Thomas Perry, author of “The Butcher’s Boy” and “Pursuit.” That’s high praise, because when Perry is working at the top of his abilities, he has few equals in the genre. Holm displays a similar attention to the details of self-defense, identity switching and weapons handling, and that sense of verisimilitude goes a long way toward grounding the plot in plausibility. There are a couple of situations that border on the far-fetched, but Holm has the skill to smooth over these bumps, so he can ramp up the suspense without letting the narrative engine fly to pieces.

“The Killing Kind” ends as one might expect, with a colossal showdown between Hendricks and Engleman, with more than merely their own lives on the line. But even if the set-up is expected, the follow-through is not. Holm provides plenty of twists in the endgame to leave his readers satisfied.

“The Killing Kind” is the kind of well-wrought entertainment that builds an enthusiastic fan base. Whether in his next book Holms returns to this milieu or heads in a different direction, he’s likely to bring a horde of enthusiastic new readers with him.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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