Thriller Book Review: Billy Summers by Stephen King

Thriller Book Review

Billy Summers
Author: Stephen King
Publication Date: Aug 3, 2021
Publisher: Scribner
Genres: Thriller

If you look back over Stephen King's career, there's a clear literary journey from vintage King, to sober King, to reflective King, one where the kind of stories he's telling has changed along with how he tells them. His current turn is one I've struggled with, having lost the depth and breadth of the vintage stories, stepped away from the supernatural chill that was fading but still prevalent in the sober stories, and turned inward to focus on human morality and mortality.

The Bill Hodges books were okay, but nothing special; his Hard Case Crime stories I have zero interest in; Sleeping Beauties was utter garbage (but his son shares half the blame); The Outsider I actually enjoyed; and Revival was like stepping back into sober King, with the exciting tease of vintage King, only for him to lose his courage and play it safe with a disappointing final act of reflective King.

And that brings us to Billy Summers. To be honest, I wasn't expecting too much of the read. The blurb made it clear that it was the work of reflective King, another human thriller with no supernatural ties that was going to get deep into questions of morality and mortality. On top of that, it delves deep into that self-indulgent space of the writer writing about a writer, telling stories within the story. As such, my expectations were slipping lower, which is why I made such middling progress for the first 3 days of reading it.

All that being said, I liked the character of Billy, I was curious about his 'final' assignment, and I found myself feeling for him as he ignored his own rules and connected too much with people he knew  his crime would hurt, and whose loss he knew would hurt himself. It's one of the better morality tales King has ever told, one that doesn't stop at asking whether it's acceptable to do bad things for good reasons, but which puts friendly faces on the consequences of those bad things. 

About halfway through the big event happens, Billy's world breaks, and the too-friendly, too-engaged imposter becomes the reclusive survivor, waiting for his chance to flee a betrayal he always knew was coming. As he waits, fate throws a challenge down before him, presenting him with a young woman in  distress. Save her, ignore her, or kill her, there's no safe option, no choice he can make that doesn't have damning consequences, and that's where the story sucked me in, forcing me to stay up late on day 4 to finish the second half of the book.

The pacing is wildly uneven, there's not a lot that happens, King's treatment of a rape victim is problematic, and the plot device of pedophilia just feels like too much. It's predictable at times, and plays it safe when it does introduce a twist, but that's actually what made it interesting for me. The whole second half of the story is an arc of revenge, but it's more thoughtful than violent, and it takes great pains to distance itself from Hollywood revenge stories, making it clear that Billy Summers is no John Rambo or John Wick. The choices he makes, for the most part, give that second half a sense of realism, as if it's a story that could actually happen, but the final confrontation is too easy, too quick, an act of punishment with no room for remorse and very little sense of justice.

Ultimately, even if it's not the kind of vintage King novel I crave (books I have settled for rereading, since it seems their time has passed), Billy Summers was still an enjoyable read, populated by interesting, sympathetic characters, told in Uncle Stevie's comfortably familiar, easy, rambling, folksy sort of voice. It's worth checking out.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀


  1. I managed to snag and audio listening copy of Billy Summers this week. Looking forward to checking it out on an upcoming road trip!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it, even if it feels like a different author. I'm kinda glad I'm new to King, reading this. Getting to experience something cool for the first time is always a great feeling. ^^


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