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Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo

Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo (Other Press, 2011) poses rather a nice existential question. Let’s suppose you’re an American hitman working in England, what would you think about while waiting for your intended victim to be in the right place for you to do the job? Would you be humming a merry tune or perhaps worrying about whether it was going to rain, and you without an umbrella? Presumably you would not be anxious about your financial health. As a seasoned professional, you would have cash salted away in numbered accounts under different names. Your health would be good. You would keep fit. After all, there’s no knowing when you might have to run after a victim or, perish the thought, run away from the police. Not, of course, that you’ve ever faced such an indignity. You’ve always managed to avoid even the slightest chance of detection. Perhaps you’re always professional, focused on tracking your victim, monitoring the environment for potential threats so that, when you have the victim alone, you can despatch him and be gone before anyone notices the body or you. Indeed, perhaps it would be better if you tried not to think at all. Not that the morality of killing people for a living has ever bothered you. You’re not one of these deep-thinkers. It’s always been a simple financial transaction. A life for cash.

So let’s think the unthinkable. Suppose it does actually occur to you to assess your life and what you’re doing with it. Would you be happy? It’s not that you lack the wherewithal to live a very comfortable life but, when you look around, you find the place where you hang your hat is Spartan, in the less friendly version of the word. You have very few material possessions with clothes obviously low down in your scale of priorities. And what interests or hobbies do you have? Well, now that you mention it, the cupboard seems equally bare on that front. You could always try reading a few books to bring a little culture into your life. What about architecture? Haven’t you always been interested in buildings, even if only to find quiet places inside or outside where you can do your killings. Would you be in the market for books on Georgian style? Well, perhaps mainly photographic rather than detailed historical tomes. You wouldn’t want to tire yourself before you start.

Ronald De Feo not quite looking Georgian

Anyway, what would happen if you threw in an extra death? It’s not in your interests to have potential witnesses so, even though you were in the middle of Derbyshire (and nothing newsworthy ever happens in Derbyshire) you kill both the intended victim and the old guy he was talking to. Except that gets into the national press. Old man gunned down in gangland hit (in Derbyshire, of all places). So, suddenly, your reputation for clean kills is blighted and you’re on a compulsory vacation in New York where you can have fun playing the part of an Englishman — there’s less chance the accent and mannerisms will detected as false. But when your work interrupts, you find yourself sent off again. You may be the fastest worker not employed as a short-order cook, but this doesn’t mean you’re immune to complaints from unhappy customers. So you decide to revisit the old homestead, remind yourself of your roots. Then, all that’s left to do is go off to Barcelona. After all, it’s got some great architecture and people to kill.

Calling Mr King is a slightly disconcerting book. Normally, when you read about a psychopathic killer, you’re expected to be shocked and appalled by the wanton cruelty of the man. Yet here the intention is to present a serial killer in a not unfavourable light. Indeed, there’s some mordent wit on display as this first-person narrative explores the thinking processes of a man who stands on the cusp of what will be, for him, some quite profound insights. In all the years of his relatively short existence, he’s never really thought about himself or what he would like to make of his life. He’s just been a straight arrow who, when pointed at a victim by the bowman, flies at the target without blinking. Now that his brain has been engaged, the point of the book is to see what actual thoughts drop down into his consciousness when he shakes his own tree. The result is a fascinating insight into the mind of a man who, in many senses, was a victim of his abusive father. Perhaps more importantly, he never had a chance to make anything of himself. Neither the home nor the education system offered him a chance to climb up from the bottom of the heap. He was just lucky it turned out he was a dead shot.

Like Patricia Highsmith in The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), Ronald De Feo is out to play a game with us. If he can make us care about this stone cold killer, we can be made to worry about whether he can retire. What would we want for such a man? A villa with a library of books on architecture or a grave with no-one to mourn him? The problem is that it goes on too long. No matter what De Feo tries, he can never make us feel real compassion for a loose cannon — at the end, he’s just as much an amoral killer as when he started except now he’s unpredictable. Ironically, that makes him even more dangerous. So our Mr. King, the name being a nursery rhyme joke, is nowhere near as “likeable” as Tom Ripley nor is his situation as interesting. I might have felt more kindly disposed towards the book had it been about one-third shorter. As it is, I just wanted Mr King arrested or dead.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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