Editor’s note: This review was written by Samuel Carver, a guest reviewer who has agreed to share his throwback review of Tom Wood’s first Victor The Assassin book, ‘The Killer.’
Assassins: Individuals who commit targeted murder for political reasons or monetary gain. They’ve evoked fascination in the public consciousness due to the nature of their profession. Not bound by any of the laws and constraints that us mere mortals are under, their freedom to determine who lives and dies and their outsider nature in society has provided much material for books and films over the years, perhaps due to the latent wish fulfillment people have of being able to possess that power.
Who hasn’t in their darkest moments, briefly thought of how wonderful it would be if some annoying or unpleasant person got a bullet between the eyes?
Whether freelance or government, it can be argued that assassins dominate thriller fiction because they’re free from the chains that shackle more heroic characters. One of the top fictional assassins in contemporary thriller fiction has been created by an Englishman named Tom Wood. His creation is an assassin named Victor, who over six books, has delivered death from New York to Tanzania. In espionage fiction, which is incredibly competitive, Victor, introduced in The Killer (2010), stands out for several reasons.
For starters, as he notes, he’s a bad guy. He’s an honest to god amoral anti-hero, who doesn’t fret about the police, killers and others he eliminates over the course of the book. He’s also a mystery. A man with no real name, a past that’s not on any record and a face that’s undergone significant plastic surgery over the years.
In other words, Victor is the perfect assassin who doesn’t suffer from the weaknesses his counterparts do or are forced to contend with.
In the hands of a lesser writer, The Killer would have ended up as another cliché job-gone-wrong story with an unappealing two-dimensional villain protagonist in the lead. However, Tom Wood took the material he had and made it into a spellbinding first novel of plot, counter-plot, and gunfire that puts to shame many fictional killer novels that came before it and stars a main character who’s much more complex and appealing than he appears to be at first glance.
Now to the review, what happens when the best assassin in the world has a bad day on the job?
The story starts in Paris, France. The protagonist, Victor, is in the process of completing a simple mission. With a suppressed FN Five-SeveN he shoots a man carrying a memory stick with unknown contents and quietly returns to his hotel. Unfortunately, he detects a hit squad looking for him. What follows is a killing spree of memorable proportions as Victor efficiently outwits and removes the killers sent after him (the icing on the cake being what he does with a radio and sniper rifle). Leaving France, Victor returns to his secluded property in Geneva.
Meanwhile in Langley Virginia at the CIA offices, a storm of epic proportions in brewing. Unbeknownst to Victor the murder he committed destroyed an operation the Company was running. Placed on Langley’s radar, Victor is attacked on his property by an American sniper. Defeating his attacker and fleeing the country, Victor decides to go on the offensive and as the body count rises, is forced to take on not just the CIA but law enforcement, Russia’s SVR and most threateningly of all, a sociopathic SIS officer who can match wits with the perfect assassin.
In terms of plot, The Killer is elegant. The writing style is highly vivid and at times it almost seems written by a seasoned pro. From the opening gunfight in Paris, to an incredibly vicious climax in Tanzania where Victor’s attempts at turning the tables on an entire Spetsnaz GRU team nearly blow up in his face, the story will throw you headfirst into a world where death is literally one bullet away and life is only worth the wisest move you make.
Why I Loved It
The action is phenomenal and stylish, a prime example being the protagonist’s run-in with the real life French R.A.I.D swat team, whom which he wipes the floor with.
Mr Wood seems to have done his research on tradecraft, nomenclature, weapons and technology, almost to the level of the legendary Fredrick Forsyth. For many first books, authors sometimes screw up on the little details that can make connoisseurs of the genre throw fits of rage. Wood avoids this.
For starters, Wood is one of the few authors I’ve read who knows the difference between the SVR and FSB and didn’t slip up when it came to describing the tradecraft and precautions Victor takes from disposing of his weapons the proper way–to accurate counter–surveillance and flanking tactics.
The sniper who attacks Victor’s house even uses an actual trick common in the US military to compensate his shots when firing on his running target. To those who think most espionage fiction is bogged down by detail, don’t worry. The Hunter isn’t consumed by the technical aspects of Victor’s profession, the action and characters are the real focus.
As for characters, there were so many wonderful standouts that I’ll only focus on three.
First, there’s Victor, our villainous protagonist. In a genre packed to the brim with leads that can sometimes come off as boy scouts badly disguised as anti-heroes, he’s a refreshing twist on a character template that had admittedly stagnated in the last decade. Many protagonists in the genre sugar coat their deeds under the banners of patriotism, making the world a better place and ultimately get trapped in a loop. Victor, by contrast, doesn’t care about all of that.
Victor knows there’s a special suite in hell waiting for him the day he runs out of bullets, and he’s an honest man. He’s under no illusions about what he is and does not attempt to delude himself or self–justify why he kills to others. He takes a moral stand in the gray area close to darkness and stays true to his personal beliefs, which should be commended in contrast to others who angst about the job they’re in but will continue to work after their superiors put a 9mm in their hand and give them another target.
Most protagonists in the genre sometimes suffer from machismo, make idiotic mistakes which their training should have ironed out of them, fall for their desires for emotional contact and even fantasize about resigning. Victor, on the other hand, is far more competent, never making an unneeded mistake or breaking tradecraft unless necessary, and has only a few attachments and accepts that he will never leave the profession he’s in.
He’s also no superhuman, reacting like any trained person would to getting their arm impaled and half their chest lacerated. And while Victor is a badass killer who can leave bodies in his wake, the author also points out that he’s had to make a lot of personal sacrifices to achieve that edge. Living in the shadows away from civilized society, being forced to keep hunting to not end up hunted and doomed to be forever alone.
Outside his job, Victor has no real life. He’s a drastic departure from fictional killers that have been written as the alter egos of their creators which makes him far more fascinating.
But the final thing which sets him apart is his characterization. Victor is a phantom. No one knows his real name, personal history or where he received his training. He’s been under plastic surgery multiple times, is fluent in several languages and is at home in Europe and the Americas. Instead, you as the reader can make your own theories and interpretations about who the man really is from the information we’re given–I certainly have over the course of the series as each book provides another piece of the puzzle.
The only things we know about Victor for certain is that he’s a tall Caucasian male who’s one hell of an operator, a blend of an amnesia-free Jason Bourne, and the best aspects of Forsyth’s enigmatic Jackal in one immensely destructive package.
He could be a former Russian spy who shot his way out of Grozny.
He could be an American private military contractor that decided murder for hire was more profitable.
He could even be a Canadian special forces soldier who abandoned his country and became loyal only to the almighty Swiss Bank Account deposit.
As the book goes on, Victors mask begins to crack. Over the course of the story, due to the prompting of an unexpected ally, he begins to form a proper attachment to a woman he ends up on the run with. While not a cliché romance, the interactions he has with her gradually begin to thaw his stoic manner, but not too much as to dilute his ruthlessness.
Secondly, we have Reed, the SIS officer pursuing Victor. Imagine Daniel Craig’s version of James Bond who is much more sociopathic, decided to go into murder for hire and you can get a general idea of what Reed’s like. Masquerading as the quintessential charming British gentleman, he slowly begins to become a lot more unnerving when his true sadistic and gleeful personality begins to appear. He takes 007’s latent sociopathy and goes to town with it.
Whether it be leaving a CIA officer bleeding to death in one of Paris’ horrific public toilets or fighting through a Russian Spetsnaz team to get to his target, Reed can be a subtle harbinger of doom or a bayonet rammed through butter when the situation calls for it. He’s the yin to Victor’s yang, equal to our anti-hero in terms of competence. Armed with a cool customized combat knife, he genuinely gives Victor a run for his money.
Lastly, we have CIA officer Alvarez, who is the only true “good guy” in the story. With his USMC past and idealistic motivations, in a Vince Flynn-type novel, he would be the main character running around the world, killing threats to freedom and democracy.
Alvarez starts the book hunting Victor but soon gets sidetracked by the more pressing issue of a faction fight at Langley. Patriotic, zealous in the execution of his duties, Alvarez battles internal sabotage of his investigation, false leads and eventually threats to his life as he comes closer to bringing down a group of men who seek to harm Uncle Sam for profit. While an intelligence gatherer first and foremost, as a former Marine, Alvarez can take care of himself.
Why You Should Read It
In recent years, the assassin archetype has gradually lost its menace. Many authors, while writing good books, have forgotten to create a balance of sorts with their killers, at times straying into a standard heroic territory.
Tom Wood has helped correct the balance with Victor, systematically murdering multiple tropes and conventions that were holding the genre back, and thus creates a compelling, unpredictable reading experience that will kick readers right into the globe-spanning crossfire that Victor inhabits.
With slick, stylishly cinematic action, a cast of characters who are more than meets the eye, and an outstandingly researched narrative that reads like a love letter to what makes spy fiction great, The Killer is a world-class thriller written by a criminally underrated author.
Before the final hour strikes and Victor is forced to reckon with a man from his past, start from the beginning and get to know one of the true anti – heroes operating in the genre today!
Samuel Carver is a thriller superfan and community leader over at Goodreads.com. Last year alone, he reviewed more than one hundred novels. Trusted by authors and readers alike, Samuel has become an influential voice in the espionage and thriller genre. Follow him over at Goodreads here.
Author: Tom Wood
Series: Victor The Assassin #1
Pages: 336 (Paperback)
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Release Date: April 13, 2010