As he has proven time and again, Stephen King is not only a phenomenal writer, he’s a phenomenal writer about writing.

“Misery.” “The Shining.” “Finder’s Keepers.” “The Dark Half.” “Lisey’s Story.” And, of course, “On Writing.” It’s easy to tick off examples of his books that address the creative process, knowing there are plenty of others one has neglected to mention.

Write what you know, right? If only it were that easy.

This year, King has already delivered one novel with a strong connection to the world of books. In March’s “Later,” the protagonist’s mother works as a literary agent, her livelihood dependent on the output of a single best-selling author. A scary predicament indeed.

King’s new novel, “Billy Summers,” goes all-in in its depiction of a neophyte learning to craft a story. Billy, however, isn’t an earnest young creative writing student at some community college. Rather, he’s a 44-year-old sure-shot assassin, albeit one who shoots and kills only “bad” people.

“Billy Summers” opens with the title character awaiting a client while reading Emile Zola’s “Therese Raquin,” switching the novel for an Archie comic book when the potential customers arrive. Billy likes to put his “dumb self” on display, leaving those who hire him with the impression that he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. In his business, being underestimated often proves safer than being clever.

“It’s like a seatbelt,” he says of his dumb self. “You don’t use it because you expect to be in a crash, but you never know who you might meet coming over a hill on your side of the road. This is also true on the road of life, where people veer all over the place and drive the wrong way on the turnpike.”

Two underworld associates offer Billy the biggest payday of his career as a sniper, a cool $2 million that would allow him to retire comfortably from the killing business. Even though he knows the dangers in taking one last big job, Billy agrees to the assignment. The idea is to hide in one place and let the target come to him. So, Billy hunkers down in a small Midwestern town, pretending to be, of all things, a freelance writer working on a novel.

As Billy waits, he finds himself oddly pleased with his new persona, making friends with his neighbors and becoming part of the community. With no chance of being published, Billy actually starts to write a novel, disguised as a memoir, one based on his tours of duty in Iraq. The more he writes, the better he writes, and soon he finds himself unearthing truths about himself that he had tucked away decades ago.

For a book about a contract killer, “Billy Summers” moves at a decidedly measured pace. King explains everything Billy does to build himself a number of new identities and prepare for the upcoming hit. At various times, readers might wonder why they need another chronicle of a trip to Walmart.

The details are important, though. As far-fetched as the thriller plot might be, King wants to ground it in reality enough so that his readers willingly suspend their disbelief when he needs them to.

Eventually, Billy’s plans come to fruition, though not in the way he expects. And “Billy Summers” the novel takes a sharp, unexpected twist that propels it into new territory.

To talk much about the second half of the book is to rob it of some of its ingenuity. A new character joins the cast, one as almost as dynamic as Billy, and together they form a formidable, if unlikely, team.

In the middle of the narrative is another, secret story, Billy’s fictionalized account of his military service. At first, his output reads as if it were written by his “dumb self.” Gradually, Billy stretches his literary muscles, and King shows how Billy’s mastery of the craft grows over time and offers a fresh way of seeing the world. As Billy seeks revenge for a betrayal that nearly costs him his life, he is compelled to recalibrate his moral compass.

“Billy Summers” is the perfect summertime treat – solidly crafted, deliciously suspenseful and surprisingly heartfelt. King plays to all his strengths: deep characterization, clever plotting and this time an ending that seems both logical and well earned. There’s even a hint of the supernatural, as Billy finds himself affected by his proximity to the ruins of the Overlook Hotel, once the domain of another writer’s literary quest.

When he first started publishing in the mid-70s, it was easy to pigeonhole King as a genre writer, in particular a horror writer. But he quickly began to show his versatility as early as his first collection of novellas, “Different Seasons.”

Is there any chance that King might have been playing the “dumb self” game himself early on, letting critics underestimate his ability to simultaneously appreciate both Emil Zola and Archie Andrews?

“Billy Summers” might be King’s most bookish thriller to date, an incisive character study wrapped inside a road novel, coupled with a very unconventional love story.

However you want to label it, King’s latest novel squarely hits its targets nine times out of 10.

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: [email protected]
Twitter: @mlberry


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