I stumbled across Stephen White’s thriller Kill Me when I was looking for something else, and found myself intrigued by the premise, and the many pull quotes asserting that White writes unusually substantive and literary thrillers. A thriller for people who don’t really like thrillers? Could be for me.
Kill Me‘s nameless, rich, extreme-sport-loving, narrator doesn’t want to be left a vegetable by an accident. He doesn’t even want to live with undiminished mental capacity if circumstances render him unable to live life to the fullest. He learns of a business venture — the narrator refers to them as the “Death Angels” — that provides a service to sufficiently wealthy clients. You sign up, they monitor you continually, and when your quality of life falls below a pre-determined threshold, they will snuff at your life, doing their best to make it look like an accident. The catch is, if you enter into an agreement with the Death Angels when you are of sound body and mind, they take any inclination to re-negotiate or abrogate the contract as an indication of mental unsoundness. There’s no backing out.
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that this doesn’t go as well as planned.
White’s narrator provides a wealth of carefully-observed physical detail, presumably intended to counteract the book’s credibility problems. He also really likes to hear himself talk, and is convinced of his own profundity:
It was the kind of mindless financial foreplay that Adam would
have walked out of, the kind of meeting that if I had any guts I
would have walked out of. The suits ran out of ideas long before
they ran out of words, so I was ready for them to shut their
mouths long before they finally shut their briefcases. I hustled
out of the building and slunk down into the subway with about a
million other people and stuffed myself into a crowded car on the
Lexington Avenue line heading to Midtown. I could have taken a cab
or arranged for a Town Car or limo to go uptown, but despite my
whining I liked the crush of life in the tunnels below the city,
especially during rush hour.
I couldn’t tell if White wanted the reader to like the narrator despite his arrogance, or didn’t really care. I found the narrator largely credible — I haven’t met many, if any, people with quite as many millions as he’s got, but I’ve certainly met a few who aspire to have that much wealth, and act much as he does — but not compelling, nor particularly pleasant. I was interested enough to keep reading, but not emotionally invested.
I did struggle with suspension of disbelief throughout the book. The Death Angels seemed improbably well-resourced, so much so that I almost wanted them to be given a sci-fi-ish rationale (They’re from the future! It’s a secret CIA training program!) . The narrator often seems much better at cloak & dagger stuff than I would expect from a corporate executive, but misses some obvious tricks when the plot requires him to be blindsided.
I don’t want to give away any surprises, but will mention two things. It’s obvious that a book like this will have some twists. For a while I thought the twist might be that the Death Angels never actually killed anybody — that they used the threat of death to restore their members’ will to live. So first, if this is the sort of twist you’d prefer, this may not be the book for you. Second, I was frustrated through much of the novel with the narrators’ refusal to to contemplate the moral compass of people who would choose to work for the Death Angels — but if White’s narrator doesn’t think about this, at least White himself does.
needs more demons? Perhaps just not my thing.