Sutler – The Kills Book 1 by Richard House

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Described as an epic novel of crime and conspiracy, The Kills is as baffling as it is brilliant. This ambitious project is actually four books – Sutler, The Massive, The Kill and The Hit. Each one can be read like a normal ebook, or enjoyed in enhanced versions with short, atmospheric films. If you want the enhanced editions, they’re available for iOS, Android and Kobo devices.

The series opens with Sutler, where House has written a sophisticated, sprawling thriller about British and American civilian contractors in post-war Iraq, and the disappearance of $53 million. Of course, in the years after the war this was a part of the world where bundles of American cash were needed to make things happen.

The central plot point is laid out in the first paragraph. John Jacob Ford is called in the early hours of the morning by his senior manager at HOSCO International and told to disappear from Camp Liberty, the military base in Baghdad. We don’t know what his job is exactly, or indeed what the acronym HOSCO stands for, but it’s soon clear that Ford’s departure is connected to an engineering project known as The Massive, a city gateway to the world’s largest oil reserve.

Just to confuse matters further, Ford is required to use a different name – Stephen Lawrence Sutler – by his boss during this spell in Iraq, for reasons that are not exactly clear. It’s a fitting moniker, though, as a Sutler is a historical name for a person who follows an army and sells provisions to soldiers. Ford heads to the regional government centre in Amrah City to organise a $250,000 pay-off before his disappearance, but then things go badly awry. Ford ends up bloodied and on the run in the desert, searching for the Turkish border. He may have been set up to take the blame for the missing millions.

Sutler is all the more intriguing for its focus on the non-military personnel acting with impunity in Iraq and the inevitable corruption that accompanies piles of cash. When Ford finds that his alter-ego subtly alters his own personality, we’re almost in Patricia Highsmith territory – especially when he’s befriended by an American student, Eric, who develops an obsession with him. Eric talks incessantly about a true crime book he’s reading about a murder case in Naples inspired by a novel, The Kill. Intriguingly, The Kill is the third book in House’s series and serves as a standalone.

When some menacing members of the Turkish underworld make an appearance, this novel recalls those shadowy thrillers of Eric Ambler’s set in Turkey. There’s also that classic crime element, the MacGuffin – in this case a set of dog tags, imprinted with key information.

Other characters enter the fray including a pair of squabbling journalists who think Ford/Sutler might be their big scoop, a British insurance investigator seeking out the $53 million, and Eric’s concerned mother in New York. It can certainly get confusing, though you always feel confident that House knows where he’s going with his global story of individuals caught up in the corruption of post-war rebuilding.

The Kills had the literary heft to earn it a place on the Man Booker Prize longlist, and this first book in the series is a superior thriller that has echoes of classic genre writing but with a compulsive, heightened prose style that’s all its own.


CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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