Calling Mr. King

  • Ronald De Feo
  • The Other Press
  • 304 pp.

A callous killer-for-hire with a penchant for art and architecture considers the possibility of reinventing himself.

Reviewed by Phil Harvey

Calling Mr. King gives us a paid killer who has developed a taste for Georgian architecture and William Turner paintings. He carries a postcard version of Turner’s Mortlake Terrace: Early Summer in his pocket and he glances at it from time to time before emerging from his lair and blowing someone’s brains out.

This could be interesting, even revealing. But mostly, in Ronald De Feo’s debut novel, it isn’t.

The protagonist kills four people in the early going, most with head shots, splattering their skulls. He doesn’t care about them, and we can’t work up much sympathy either. That a cold-blooded killer with a taste for art and architecture has no feelings about the people he murders is perhaps not surprising. However, this violence is presented in such a casual and undramatic way that there is little suspense, drama, or reason to be concerned about the victims.

The reader must depend on the first-person “Mr. King” throughout this book, as he delves through bookstores on two continents, researches Georgian architecture, extols the creative genius of Gaudí in Barcelona, muses about his proper English alter ego Peter Chilton, shops, ponders his life and role, and then wastes another victim under instructions from “the Firm.” It ought to be chilling, but it’s not.

There are a few bright moments. A conversation the assassin has with one of the members of the Firm, surrounded by his lackeys, trying doggedly and unsuccessfully to be funny, is in fact a very funny scene. Further, as our killer begins to deteriorate mentally and emotionally he briefly attracts our interest as he tries to make himself into someone else. But even this deterioration is not dramatic, lacking any of the contrasting elements that would make such a character vivid. He is, mostly, a nice guy who kills people. It is, finally, boring. The scenes about art and architecture, including some very detailed descriptions of buildings in Barcelona, leave me cold. Why would anyone want to learn about these things from such an obviously unreliable source?

There are no police here. Our killer is never in the slightest concerned that anybody is going to catch him. He flashes his pistol around carelessly. There is little tension, or conflict. There are some brief dramatic moments late in the book when the hunter becomes the hunted and we wonder if the Firm’s other minions will in fact gun him down. But even as he kills off two of these henchmen (that’s who he thinks they are anyway), the story flattens out because he does it nonchalantly and utterly without concern about what the result might be.

Finally and characteristically, the book fizzles out. Our killer wanders down the street revealing his “real” name which evaporates like a wisp of fog.

Ronald De Feo is an experienced reviewer of books and an occasional author of published short stories. The literary world will be well served if he sticks to analyzing other writers’ work.

Phil Harvey’s short stories have appeared in 13 publications.

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