Chris F. Holm’s The Killing Kind introduces us to Michael Hendricks, a hitman who kills other hitmen at the behest of the intended victim. The novel expands his much-acclaimed short story “The Hitter.” Chris was kind enough to talk to us about the book, his writing, and the art of reading.
MysteryPeople Scott: This was originally a short story. What did you want to expand and explore with Hendricks and his situation?
Chris F. Holm: Both the novel and the short story feature a hitman who makes a living hitting other hitmen, only to wind up a target himself. Both feature a man traumatized by his past misdeeds whose cold, calculating facade crumbles when those he cares about are threatened. But “The Hitter” is written in almost claustrophobic first person, and its primary focus is the narrator’s slow unraveling. The novel is told in sprawling third, and is far more concerned with the possibility of his redemption.
MPS: You’re incredibly knowledgeable about genre fiction. Where there any books or authors you drew from for The Killing Kind?
CFH: Wow. That’s quite a compliment coming from a bookseller. One of the few gripes I have about the writing life—most of which I quite enjoy—is that it certainly eats into my reading time. I often feel as if I can’t keep up. But I was raised on mysteries and thrillers, and to this day, I’m an enormous fan of crime fiction in all its forms.
I could probably release a commentary track listing the nods, influences, and in-jokes in The Killing Kind chapter by chapter—but who the hell would want to listen to it? For me, the two biggest influences on this book were Donald Westlake—his Parker books, written as Richard Stark, in particular—and John Le Carré. On the surface, they have little in common. Westlake’s Parker books are terse, brittle, and nasty. Le Carré’s novels are baroque, sprawling, and melancholy. But both of them wrote primarily about work—in Westlake’s case, it was crime, and in le Carré’s, it was espionage. And both of them created characters that were at once larger than life and utterly believable.
MPS: Your action passages really pop and have wonderful flow to them. What are a few tips for writing a good action scene?
CFH: Thanks! I’ll be honest: the action scenes in The Killing Kind didn’t come easy; they were the result of relentless rewriting. But that’s because the gulf between good action sequences and bad ones is enormous, and I was determined to make mine the former.
To my mind, empty action is boring. Writers spend a lot of time thinking up cool set pieces—and there’s value in that—but a cool set piece alone does not good action make. A good action sequence should be rooted in character. It should forward the plot. Its outcome should be unpredictable. And it should be told clearly enough that the reader never has to say, “Wait, what?”
That’s a lot of masters for one scene to serve—too many for me to knock it out in a single pass. So I keep combing until I’m satisfied I’ve got it right.
MPS: How does being well read help you as an author?
CFH: It doesn’t help me, it’s a necessary condition. I genuinely believe any would-be writer who’s not a reader first is destined to fail. I know they’re out there, but I can’t fathom why, or what they think they’re trying to pull. Reading widely and critically is the first step toward writing worth a damn.
MPS: As an author, what makes you want to stick with Michael Hendricks?
CFH: As a writer, I’m fascinated by the limits of redemption. In essence, how bad can a person break and still come back? Hendricks affords me the opportunity to explore that. He was a decent kid who came up rough, and enlisted in the Army straight out of high school. In Afghanistan, he discovered he had a knack for killing, but not always the stomach for it. As far as he’s concerned, not everyone he killed at Uncle Sam’s behest needed killing.
Now he’s scarred, damaged, and full of self-loathing. He wants to make things right, but unfortunately, the only thing he knows is violence—he has no other tools at his disposal. So he makes his living killing killers, and tells himself he’s doing the world a favor.
Despite the fact that he kills people for money, I can’t help but think he’s still redeemable. So much of what got him to this point was outside of his control. He didn’t choose a life of violence—it chose him. What’s fascinating to me is watching him come to grips with that. I want to see if he can find the strength to walk away.
You can find copies of The Killing Kind on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.