Richard House, author of the immensely entertaining novel The Kills, tells a brief anecdote of a father who is planning to bury someone alive in a forest. The father brings his daughters to the site he has in mind and asks them to scream. It’s a game, he tells them. When they yell and shriek in the forest, they confirm that the forest is remote enough to bury his victim alive, undetected. Without knowledge of their father’s evil intentions the daughters become accomplices in a premeditated murder.
The Kills, a thousand-page thriller comprising four interconnected books, relates dozens of stories pertinent to this theme of culpability. House asks readers of The Kills to consider if his characters can be held responsible for their actions. What are the implications of their deeds?
Characters in the first two books within The Kills, “Sutler” and “Massive”, are tethered to contracts for corporations wishing to reap fiscal rewards in Iraq. These contractors, a veritable gallery of rogues, are unknowing bit player stooges laboring to fatten the retirement packages of profiteers like Paul Geezler, a maverick executive who appears omniscient and all-powerful throughout the novel. Consigned to the infernal desert these civilians labor, ironically, at a place called Camp Liberty, “isolated for good reason, because it is the largest site where chemical, human, and animal waste is brought to be destroyed in the desert.” All of this waste is torched in burn pits which officially do not exist because of the illegal and unsafe nature of the project. The contractors, we learn, are breathing in toxic gases that will kill them, one and all.
When contractor John Jacob Ford, renamed Sutler by Paul Geezler, outwits his boss and escapes, the true fun begins. Sutler uncovers his higher-ups’ plans for embezzlement and becomes one of the only characters Geezler cannot wrangle. The international search for Sutler, a divine comedy of errors, is written in a campy style, richly indecorous and funny, that recalls the work of postmodernists Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis, albeit without their writerly self-indulgence. But there is one writer above all else whom House deliberately channeled: Roberto Bolaño whose magnum opus 2666 is alluded to in “Massive.”
Besides the influence of 2666, House embeds another novel within The Kills which House’s third and fourth books, "The Kill" and "The Hit," expressly deal with. In a metafictional twist, this novel-within-the-novel is called The Kill. Its appearance in the characters’ lives is ominous. It is a book about a gruesome murder, supposedly penned by an author whose hometown had been occupied during wartime by American and British forces. Upon reading this novel, two wealthy brothers are inspired to commit a copycat killing in a Naples basement. They too, like Geezler and other wealthy characters in The Kills, conspire to stage naive people to take the blame. For example, a man named Marek, unemployed and insolvent, is hired to help the evil brothers finish their torture chamber. “Determined to complete the project in one day [Marek] worked late and found satisfaction in this labour, a level of pride, a return to the normal world of work and reward. The walls and ceiling were smartly lined, the floor scraped clean and painted, and the room reeked of a fresh chemical smell.” Little does Marek know, but he has just built the scene of a crime—and his fingerprints are everywhere.
House’s characters come from all walks; a roster of rabble-rousers pepper this tale: transvestites and cross-dressers, whores, murderers, corporate executives, lobotomized halfwits, hitmen, informants, grocery store clerks, students, diplomats, bleary-eyed journalists, white collar executives and bumbling insurance investigators—all are quilted together in a network of intrigue and illusion. The only way to achieve autonomy, House seems to say, is to enact vengeance on the powerful perpetrators. Today, as Iraq burns anew, we witness how Iraqi insurgents have imbibed the most notorious of ancient Middle Eastern laws—the Code of Hammurabi. After years of Western occupation and turmoil in the region, present day Iraqi militants share Hammurabi’s philosophy with House’s vengeful characters—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.