Book review and synopsis for Billy Summers by Stephen King, A thriller about a hitman doing one last job that goes sour.
Billy Summers is a hitman and a decorated former Marine sniper. He’s ready to retire, but before he does, he accepts one last job that offers a huge payday that would set him up comfortably for his post-hitman life.
However, as the details of it come together, he knows something about it feels very wrong.
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Detailed Plot Summary
Chapter-by-Chapter SummarySee the Chapter-by-Chapter Summary of Billy SummersQuick Plot Summary Summary (Spoilers)
The one-paragraph version: Billy Summers, 44, is a hitman who only kills “bad” men. He accepts one final job (from Nick) before he retires with a major payday attached. However, Billy starts to suspect Nick intends to kill him when the job is done. Sure enough, the job goes as planned, they try to kill him, but Billy gets away. He soon meets Alice, 20, who has just been sexually assaulted, and he helps her punish her attackers (non-lethally). Then, Billy confronts Nick. Nick tells him the one who ordered the job was Klerke (who wanted Billy dead since it was one less loose end). Klerke likes young girls, so Alice dresses up as a teenager so she and Billy can confront Klerke. Alice shoots Klerke. One the way out, the mother of one of the guys Billy injured comes out of nowhere and shoots Billy. He dies.
Billy Summers is a hitman and former Marine sniper who only accepts jobs killing “bad” men and wants to retire altogether. Nick, who Billy has worked for many times before, offers Billy one last job — one that pays $500K upfront and $1.5M after it’s done.
The target, Joel Allen, is also a hitman. He’s wanted in the area for murdering a guy who won a bunch of money off of him in a poker game. Joel has been claiming that he has some valuable information that the police wants in order to make some type of deal, and apparently someone doesn’t want him talking, which is why Billy has been hired to take him out.
The job requires Billy to spend quite some time as a resident in a small town where some office space has been rented out for Billy’s use. The cover story is that Billy is a writer named David Lockridge who has been tasked by his agent to stay there and go to the office and write each day in an attempt to get him to meet his deadline. The office has a direct view to the courthouse, where Joel will eventually be taken to be arraigned for murder. Billy is meant to shoot him at that time and then disappear.
Billy gets suspicious when Nick offers up a getaway plan for after the hit takes place, since typically he leaves that up to Billy to figure out. Nick’s plan involves Billy escaping in a city transit truck that will have someone waiting to drive him away. Billy suspects that Nick intends to then kill him. Instead, Billy starts to formulate his own plan.
While he waits for the big day, Billy also starts writing the fake book his character is supposed to be writing, just as a way to kill time because he wants to. He changes all the names, but writes about his own story, starting with his little sister being beaten and killed by his mother’s drunk boyfriend when he was 11. Billy ended up finding a gun and killing the boyfriend. He later ended up in foster care and then joined the Marines at 17.
In present day, the shooting goes off without a hitch. Billy evades the transit truck and gets away by disguising himself as one of the office workers in the building. He then goes to hide out at an apartment he previously rented under another name, Dalton Smith, where he intends to lay low for a while since there is a media frenzy surrounding the shooting. When Nick doesn’t pay him after the shooting is done and instead demands to know where he is, Billy knows that his suspicions about Nick were correct. He also soon learns there’s a $6M bounty on his head.
While Billy is trying to remain out of sight, he sees a young woman get dumped out of a truck onto the street, drugged and half-dead. Not wanting to attract police attention to the street, he reluctantly goes out to save her. It turns out Alice, 20, had just been sexually assaulted by a group of men. Alice recognizes Billy as the person on the news as the shooter, but she ends up wanting to stay with him for a while.
As Billy continues writing his story, he writes about his experiences in the military and discovering that he was quite a talented sniper. He also writes about an incident in Fallujah where he and his buddies were sent to check out a large house and a majority of them were killed there. One of the survivors, Johnny Capps, later hooked Billy up with his first job as a hitman.
When it’s time to hit the road, Billy first goes to confront Alice’s attackers. He demands that two of them apologize to her over the phone, and then he sodomizes the last one (who was the one lured her there) with an object. After that, Billy and Alice head for a place in Colorado to meet with Bucky, who is Billy’s “broker” and the only person Billy fully trusts, and to plan how to go after Nick.
At Nick’s estate, Billy pretends to be a migrant worker who is there to deliver gardening supplies. He has to kill or injure a bunch of Nick’s men, including seriously injuring a guy named Frank whose mother Marge also works for Nick. Billy manages to extract a promise from Nick to pay the money owed and to tell people that Billy is dead.
Nick also tells Billy that the person who ordered the shooting was Roger Klerke, a wealthy man who owns an assortment of media companies. Roger originally hired Joel Allen to kill his son, Patrick Klerke. Roger has a predilection for very young girls which Patrick had learned about, and he managed to get photo evidence of it. Then, when Patrick had learned that Roger wasn’t planning on passing his company to him, he had lashed out by blackmailing Roger.
Joel Allen successfully killed Patrick, but in doing so Joel found out about the blackmail evidence as well. So, when Joel later got into his own trouble and was trying to use that information to cut a deal with the prosecution, Roger wanted Nick to hire someone (Billy) to kill Joel. Roger also wanted Billy dead to prevent a repeat of the Joel Allen situation.
Billy and Alice stay for a long time at Bucky’s place, and Billy finishes writing his life story to bring it all the way to present day. Meanwhile, Billy learns that Frank lived but now get seizures and screams with pain all the time. When it’s finally time to deal with Klerke, Alice takes photos of herself dressed up as a teenager to send to Klerke to entice him into meeting with them. Klerke takes the bait, and Alice and Billy show up at his place, and Alice shoots Klerke.
On their way out, Marge (Frank’s mom) comes out from nowhere and shoots Billy. Billy shoots back. Marge dies, and Billy is injured. Alice and Billy rush off. (From here, the story is written as if Billy is writing it as part of his life story). When they get back to their hotel, Billy thinks about how he’s bad for Alice, and she’s better off being free from any outlaw stuff. He leaves with hopes of becoming a writer and maybe even someday being able to atone for the things he’s done.
Then, in the final chapter, we learn that the last part of Billy’s story was written by Alice, not Billy. Billy actually died and Alice wrote it to convey his thoughts and how she wished he would have survived.
For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.
By Jennifer Marie Lin on Aug 14th, 2021 (Last Updated Aug 17th, 2021)PROS
- Good build-up of suspense
- Not a horror novel (may be a pro or con for you)
- Over-reliance on common tropes
- Questionable plot justifications
I had decided I was going to take a break from reading Stephen King novels (for no particular reason other than feeling like I’d read quite a few of them lately), but then everyone was saying how great Billy Summers is and so I felt like had to check it out for myself. So, here we are.
With Billy Summers, Stephen King venture out of the realm of horror that he’s known for, as he’s done quite a few times before. Instead, this is essentially a straight-up thriller-slash-suspense novel. In it, the titular Billy Summers is a trained sniper who works as a hitman. He takes one last job before retiring — one with an enticingly large payday — but it goes wrong.
In Billy Summers, I think King does a good job of building up suspenseful scenes, and the writing itself is of course fine, which is what you’d expect from Stephen King. Though to be honest, I felt it a was little sloppier than his shorter, more streamlined, works.
In general, I found the book really engaging through the first third of it or so. However, I soon realized how predictable it was becoming and started losing interest. (Discussed further in the Spoiler-ish Thoughts section at the end.)
In the book, King calls out specifically how hitmen doing “one last job” that goes poorly is a very common trope, so I was hoping it meant that he intended to take his story in a new and interesting direction.
Unfortunately, it plays out pretty much like you’d expect and turns in to a bunch of other tropes. For example, when they’re the protagonist, hitmen in books and movies are almost always rigidly principled, especially when it comes to women and children, which is why you’re supposed to like them, and Billy Summers is no different.
I imagine if this book had been authored by a debut author, I perhaps would have had lower expectations and a more kindly view on it, but I guess I expected more from Stephen King. I’m used to being surprised and delighted by his plot machinations, so I was hoping this one would be the same.
There’s also some plot justifications that I thought were pretty questionable (also discussed in the Spoiler-ish Thoughts), which was distracting for me. It’s not so far-fetched that the book is impossible to enjoy or anything like that, but I would have preferred tighter plotting.
Also, as the story progresses, Billy crosses paths with Alice, a twenty-year-old girl who has just been sexually assaulted and is left barely alive by the side of the road. She’s ends up being semi-in-love with Billy and is eager to be a part of his world. Their partnership was a little implausible in my opinion, seeming more like male fantasy than anything else, but whatever.
German Version (Left) vs US Version (Right)
Read it or Skip it?
I didn’t love it. It thought it was too long-winded, not particularly inventive, and the plot felt like a mish-mosh of movie tropes and three separate stories smushed together. After the point where we find out what went wrong, from there the book played out exactly as I expected it to, with no real surprises or plot turns (with one exception, discussed in the Spoiler-ish Thoughts below).
Billy’s also an overly-perfect character — an impossibly efficient killer who is handsome, principled, likeable, who loves reading, writing and Émile Zola, and who has a barely-legal woman a fraction of his age fawning over him — that smacks of wish-fulfillment.
I found it more suspenseful in the beginning when there was more of a possibility that the plot could potentially take an interesting or unexpected turn, but once I realized this was not that kind of book, my enthusiasm waned a lot.
To be fair, based on other reviews, it appears plenty of other people are enjoying this book more than I did, so perhaps your mileage will differ. And as mentioned above, I think I had higher expectations for this book since I do like Stephen King, and so I’m probably being a bit harsher about it than I would if it had been published by a less experienced author.
See Billy Summers on Amazon.
SPOILERS START HERE. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
I felt throughout a vast majority of the book that there were just no surprises in this book. Basically what happens is, Billy takes a job and suspects that they’re going to try to kill him when it’s over, so he makes a contingency plan. Then a hundred fifty pages later, the job goes exactly as planned and yes it turns out they planned to kill him exactly as expected, but his contingency plan works out perfectly.
Of course, predictably, Billy wants to confront Nick about it, and he suspects someone else is really pulling the strings on this job. So, Billy confronts Nick, which goes exactly as intended, he gets precisely the information he wants, and yes Nick confirms that his suspicions were right.
So, predictably, Billy goes to find the guy pulling the strings, Klerke, and plans to kill him. That also goes off without a hitch.
Billy spends a lot of time fretting about contingencies that could happen and what could go wrong, but nothing ever does. I just got so bored with this. The blurb on the book says “So what could possibly go wrong? How about everything.” But then in the book nothing ever goes wrong?! The only thing that went wrong was entirely foreseeable and so Billy planned for it, and his plans went off without a hitch.
(Yes, I know there’s also his military backstory and Alice’s revenge thrown in there, but neither of those things really impact the main plotline in any meaningful way, so whatever.)
Okay, so obviously there’s one exception to all this — right after it’s all over, Marge shoots him, which I guess I would consider somewhat unexpected, but it’s so egregiously un-clever and cheap (lady who hates him coming out from nowhere to shoot) that there’s nothing really satisfying about it.
Then, of course we’re led to think Billy survived when it turns out he’s actually dead. I wouldn’t say I was shocked by this twist, but sure, okay, I would at say at least it made things more interesting. However, after reading through 500 pages of ZERO surprises, I had a hard time being too impressed by that. And Billy dying in such a cheap way after all of this is just so maudlin.
That all said, one of my biggest issues was that the whole justification for Billy ending up in this situation was so shaky. Basically, Klerke wants him dead to avoid a repeat of the Joel Allen situation, but it seems so unnecessary? If Billy is killing Joel from afar in a brief moment when he’s in transit there’s no reason for Billy to find out about any of the blackmail information that Klerke is worried about. Moreover, if Klerke should want anyone dead, it would make 100x more sense for him to kill Nick or Giorgio or Judy, not Billy, since Billy knows nothing and all these other people know all about it.
Billy Summers Audiobook Review
Narrated by: Paul Sparks
Length: 16 hours 55 minutes
I started out listening this on audiobook, but didn’t love the narrator and switched to reading it instead. I thought the sort of clipped way the guy spoke was kind of annoying and made it less enjoyable to listen to, so I gave up on it pretty early on.
I get the feeling he was trying to sound kind of emotionally detached to tap into that war-weary, loner hitman vibe, but it didn’t work for me.
Hear a sample of the Billy Summers audiobook on Libro.fm.