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"The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning" is the first book that I have ever read from this Icelandic writer. I made sure to see who did the translation and it appears that Helgason did his own translation which makes this story about a Croatian hitman who makes the wrong hit even more remarkable to me.
The story's premise is simple enough. Tomislav "Toxic" Boksic is a hitman for the Croatian mob in NYC. He has a girlfriend. He has a job that he is good at. He likes his life well enough.
Then he's given an assignment that goes wrong in that his target is FBI. And that makes him an instant target. As such, he flees by assuming the identity of a man he kills in an airport bathroom and he is off to Iceland where there are no guns or prostitution and a very small population.
Even more worrisome, the identity of the man he has assumed is an evangelical preacher who was on his way to make an appearance on television for a local group of evangelical Icelanders.
But if you think that this is just an action/crime thriller. It isn't. Helgason has a gift for the darkly humorous and compassion in odd places. Toxic isn't a good guy but he isn't a guy you want to give up on. He is a weirdly trustworthy narrator and while it seems clear where he is headed, you can't help but hope that maybe it'll end differently. That his sins will be washed away and he can find peace.
The people he meets in his exile are interesting in their quirks and affectations. Sigrudor (or as Toxic calls him 'Sickreader') is the pastor who picks him up. His daughter Grunhilder (or Gunholder) is rebellious but not obnoxious. In between his present, you meet the people in his past. From his childhood, from the war after Yugoslavia broke up, from the mob. It is several stories that make up this one man's life and it is funny and melancholy and bittersweet.
Again, you know, as a reader, where this is all headed but the journey getting there is dark but with flashes of unexpected light that make it strangely beautiful.
"...I'm really proud of my hitman work. I always try to do a good job. `Victim first' is my motto."
Determined to come across as a fully-accredited badass, the protagonist narrates his every thought and action as he flees the U.S. after a hit goes wrong. Seeing the FBI on his tail, he quickly changes his plans, kills another stranger, and steals his identity. He awakes on a plane bound for Reykjavik, Iceland. The odds are good his escape plan will work, except that his new identity is that of a well-known fundamental Christian leader with a schedule of appearances awaiting him. Deciding to play along with the ruse, he manages to record some disturbing radio sermons and manipulate his somewhat confused hosts, all while looking for a way out of Iceland.
Author Hallgrimur Helgason often channels Quentin Tarantino with action similar to the film director's style: fast-paced violence, pop culture references, saturated with sarcasm. This is completely intentional, as Tarantino gets mentioned (as do Beyonce and Creed) several times in the storyline. The frenetic pace makes it difficult to absorb just how despicable the character is, and I found myself grasping for some quality to make him likable, some redeeming quality that would explain his often disturbing actions.
"Usually I don't want to know anything about my victims. It's like back in the war. I kill strangers. I don't feel for them. They're just another head to swamp my bullet into...Usually they have refused to pay their tithe, failed to deliver for Dikan, or they show up with the same tie as he at the Mafia Oscars."
See that? He manages to radiate disinterest and boredom, while at the same time making a really bad joke. Unfortunately, that becomes the theme of this novel. When hiding in an attic looking himself up on Google, he jokes, "I'm Anne Frank online." Upon remembering a group of beautiful women, he shares his wishes for "mass rape." He is endlessly amused at the low murder rates in the country, and spends his time remembering the better days in the States where he celebrated each kill with glee.
It becomes clear at the midpoint of the novel that there is a source of his internal conflict and external bravado: he served in the Balkan war, and with his father and brother, saw and participated in terrible atrocities. Helgason inserts the details slowly, and it's possible to feel a tiny bit of pity for the protagonist. But it doesn't last, as experiences of war don't seem sufficient to mitigate his present behavior. If anything, the arc of the Balkan storyline appears so far into the novel that it feels too late to make up for his actions. Of course, mindlessly killing a small dog doesn't exactly make him appealing. And yet his self-awareness grows, likely because he's out of his element and who he had been can't exist anymore. In one brief moment, he admits, "everybody must have figured out I am the monster who lives under the bridge."
On the surface, the premise of The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning is very clever, but the delivery is so unsavory that it is neither tragic nor comic. The sarcasm and humor feels forced, almost like a joke told by a comedian who is trying far too hard to get a laugh. I get the feeling that Helgason is trying to reinforce just what a "monster" Toxic is due to his past experiences, yet there's no evidence that he's left the past behind. The other characters he encounters seem flat, as if they are only tools to further reveal Toxic's depravity.
Perhaps this can be attributed to the Stieg Larsson effect. Scandinavian crime novels boomed with his "Girl" trilogy, but the dark mystery novels were nothing new. Other authors, such as Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Karin Alvtegen and Arnaldur Indridason have created suspenseful and imaginative crime stories in the same setting for years before the region became comparatively "hot" in the literary world. While those authors don't often present characters quite as colorful as Toxic, they usually succeed in developing deeper characters with a more compelling warmth.
(My review was originally published in The Quivering Pen website, and then on my personal blog.)
Iceland is unlike anywhere he has ever been before. It has endless days and endless nights, is never truly warm, and has an average zero homicide rate. Further he can't buy a handgun in this country which he desperately misses carrying. He has a lot of difficulty pronouncing the names of the Icelandic citizens so he just turns them into American sounding instead, for example, there's Thordur who he calls Torture, and Guomundur is called Goodmoondoor. He describes the Icelandic national face as "round, with a small nose, like a snowball with a peeble in it" (46).
Needless to say Toxic's past catches up to him in Iceland and he must leave Goodmoondoor's house and go on the run. I won't ruin the book for you but I will tell you that the preacher Goodmoondoor and his fellow preacher Torture decide to save Toxic's soul instead of turning him into the police. The book is pretty funny at times and moves very quickly. The problem I had with it was that I could never really identify with the main character or any of the characters for that matter. It was hard to sympathize with them but I did find myself at the end of the book pulling for Toxic.
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