Let’s say you are a high-flying businessman based in Miami and your organization, through urban gentrifying and development, has encroached on and damaged the business of a drug-dealing network. Or you’re an international weapons dealer who recently acted on a twinge of moral conscience, causing your employer to lose billions in contracts. In other words, you’ve angered a powerful person who now wants you gone — and they’ve hired a hit man to do it. Your only chance of survival? One Michael Hendricks, a hit man who specializes in assassinating other guns-for-hire before they can strike.
Hendricks is the highly skilled if personally conflicted protagonist of Chris Holm’s new novel, “The Killing Kind.’’ In the first half we get to know this angst-ridden, loner-to-the-max, good guy-antihero — a murderer with morals, able to realign his dislocated shoulder with a single yank.
Hendricks, a former special-ops soldier who did his share of questionable killing for shadowy government organizations, is on a kind of redemption mission, haunted by the death of one young soldier on security duty whose killing Hendricks deemed utterly unnecessary. In his new role, Hendricks figures that killing coldblooded killers is OK.
Hendricks largely works alone, save for sidekick Lester Meyers, a former special-ops teammate, who takes on the equivalent role of computer hacking specialist Luther Stickell from “Mission: Impossible.’’ The digital eyes, ears, and digits for Hendricks’s missions, Meyers also, as required, sends Hendricks care packages of zip guns masquerading as penlights, ceramic knives, and — nice personal touch — homemade oatmeal raisin cookies.
We also get to know Hendricks’s counterpart, a baddie with absolutely no morals. Alexander Engelmann heightens the creepiness and terror factor by exhibiting highly refined manners, revealing a penchant for fancy footwear and French cuffs, toting a trendy leather-bound Moleskine notebook, peppering his conversation with “tsks,” and dispensing with his victims with cool, cinematic flair. He’s the kind of killer who thinks of engaging in violence as a post-travel, energizing “pick-me-up.” He is the stuff of nightmares.
The very specific niche that Hendricks has carved out and honed for himself over 3½ years has not gone unnoticed in the criminal world, and the whole matter is brought to a head when Hendricks knocks off a particular organized crime network’s special assassin. That’s when the icky Engelmann gets hired to take Hendricks out.
From then on it’s multiple rounds of an ultra-strategic cat-and-mouse game of mind-blowing proportions. Characters come along thick and fast, including FBI special agent Charlotte Thompson who must juggle her high-stress job while taking endless calls from her sister, a “waitress who fancied herself an artist and insisted her meds quieted her muse”; Eric Purkhiser, a dude in the witness-protection program who has just gained unwanted fame by winning the lottery; and mob hit man Leon Leonwood, who, as well as being partial to alliterative aliases, was raised in South Boston and whose dad “spent his time bouncing back and forth between the bars of Southie and those of the Suffolk County lockup.”
Holm, an award-winning short-story writer and author of the fantasy-pulp fiction trilogy “The Collector,” is terrific at rendering characters with empathy and humor, even if they have a minimal part to play. I particularly loved the down-on-his-luck ventriloquist, Albert Tuschbaum, who was around for only a handful of pages but almost deserves a book of his own.
As the second half careers along with roller coaster speed and twists, meting out some seriously emotionally wrenching moments and showing that Hendricks is more than a match for MacGyver, you’ll want to go along for the ride — but keep that seat belt fastened.
THE KILLING KIND
By Chris Holm. Mulholland/Little Brown, 306 pp., $26Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.