Written by Richard Thomas — Anyone familiar with Thomas’s neo-noir anthology The New Black will know the author is a fan of the dark stuff. So you won’t be surprised to learn that Disintegration, subtitled A Windy City Dark Mystery, is pitch black in tone.
The un-named protagonist of Thomas’ noir thriller exists rather than lives. His apartment is almost bare, the only furniture is a bed and an old saw-horse. Everything is provided for him by his boss, a Russian whose name he never learnt and so has decided to call Vlad. Alcohol and food are delivered, though the food is mostly left uneaten. There are drugs too, in bottles labelled Happy and Sad, and even sex. The latter comes courtesy of Holly, who visits intermittently to provide human contact and love, though how that can ever be more than a facsimile of the real thing when she too is provided by Vlad?
Every few days he will receive an envelope. Inside will be his next target, the person that Vlad needs killed. The hitman is never told why, but trusts that he or she is a rapist, paedophile or some other kind of low-life that Chicago is better off without. After each job, the killer gets a tattoo, as some kind of memento, and then goes back to his flat to get wasted and wait for the next envelope.
The opening chapters reveal the killer’s routine and alternate with others that slowly explain how he sank this low. He plays back in segments an answerphone message from his wife, the last one she ever left, as she was driving their kids home from school. The message begins in a mundane fashion, his wife reporting on her day, asking him how he’s been. Then the everyday picture of family life is ripped apart as she describes the erratic driving of the car coming towards her and finally her frantic efforts to avoid the crash which killed them all. It is very skilfully done and acts as a counterpoint to the emotional nihilism of the other chapters.
That nihilism, no matter how well done, can be draining, and there was a point, about half way through the book, that I began to wonder if this was all there was to it, and if that was the case, whether I would finish the book. Thankfully, Disintegration takes a right turn into more familiar territory in its second half. Without giving too much away, the protagonist is given a glimpse of the extent of Vlad’s enterprise and begins to suspect he may be at the heart of a larger conspiracy. The book, though still dark and atmospheric, propels forward with an urgency missing in the earlier chapters as the killer shakes off his ennui and finds a reason, if not to live, then at least to fight back. The switch from noir stylings to thriller is seamless and Thomas appears every bit as comfortable writing these action scenes as he was with the earlier characterisation. The violence is explosive and unflinching.
Disintegration holds nothing back and is certainly a long way off the traditional commercial thriller. There are no bribes from Thomas early on, so to speak. Instead he trusts his audience to follow him into the dark. I can attest that patience, if shown, is rewarded.
Disintegration is released 26 May. If you like dark redemption fiction with a hitman, you can also try Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbo.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars