I reviewed Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning twice: for The L Magazine in March and most recently, in a slightly extended piece for Three Percent. The newest review is in full text below; you can also read it on the Three Percent website here.
Former soldier and current hitman for the Croatian mafia in New York, Tomislav Bokšić, nicknamed Toxic, has dispatched roughly 125 people. It’s a fully ingrained way of life for Toxic—he feels “restless if three months go by without firing a gun”—and takes pride in his professionalism. As a “triple six-packer,” he even holds something of a record in the business: his last 18 consecutive hits have not only been completed successfully, but each was accomplished with a single bullet apiece. But as Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning opens, Toxic is in trouble: “Hit #66 was a miss,” he says.
Don’t get me wrong. I got the bullet into the guy’s head safe and sound, but there was some serious aftermath. The mustached Polish guy turned out to be a mustached FBI guy. What was supposed to be a bright and sunny murder in broad daylight became a nightmare.
Which is how Toxic ends up going into hiding, fleeing his cushy life in New York City and heading back to Croatia to maintain his “LPP, or Lowest Possible Profile.” But even that plan goes awry and instead of heading back to his homeland, the beleaguered hitman ends up on a plane to Iceland under the assumed identity of a Southern televangelist named Father Friendly.
The second of ten Icelandic novels to be published in English by Amazon’s internationally-oriented publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning is a darkly comic novel which commingles irreverent indifference with sincere introspection and the possibility of redemption. As Toxic settles into his exile on “Lilliput Island”—a country he discovers has no handguns, no army, and hardly any murders (but plenty of good crime writers—there’s actually a list of Icelandic crime authors worked into a conversation)—he reflects back on his life as a killer, both as a soldier during the Yugoslavian civil war, as well as a contract killer. And while it wouldn’t really be true to say that Toxic feels a deep remorse for his actions, in the course of the novel, he is able to both reconcile with his past and plan ahead for a very different future.
While The Hitman’s Guide has much to recommend it in terms of plotting, pacing, and characterization, it is particularly interesting on a more “meta” level as well. For one, since Toxic arrives in Iceland with little to no previous knowledge of the country and culture, the book acts as something of a crash course in Icelandic society and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes, his observations about Iceland are more factual: he learns that it was originally christened by Irish monks, that Iceland has no prostitutes, and that “the beer costs a bear.” In other cases, the observations are a little more (self-)mocking (“According to Icelandic house rules, you’re allowed to enter in your shoes if they cost more than two hundred dollars”), and a bit opaque for someone unfamiliar with say, Iceland’s satirical contestant in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. But however these cultural snippets are conveyed, upon finishing the novel, the reader comes away with a fairly strong, if somewhat slanted, sense of Reykjavík and Icelandic culture.
Another interesting feature is the author’s use of language. Hallgrímur originally wrote The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning in English rather than Icelandic, and has an almost playful approach to rhyme and description throughout the novel. Toxic refers to a contender for his girlfriend’s affections, an Italian mafioso, as “the Talian Mobthrob.” In another passage, he describes the late-setting sun: “At 10:33 the sun is still burning on the horizon like an orange lantern at an outdoor Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn.” The descriptions don’t always hit their mark—there are a few too many laboriously detailed passages about female anatomy, and sometimes the imagery borders on overwrought (“The Balkan animal, which is my soul, is always hungry for prey”), but overall, the prose and dialogue is fresh and expansive. There are also a host of phonetic jokes about Icelandic words and names that Toxic mishears and then renders into stilted English, making countless puns on street names around the capitol; Icelandic phrases are renamed into things like “Guard the Beer,” and Reykjavík’s famous Kaffibarinn becomes “Café Bahrain.”
Both The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning and Hallgrímur Helgason seem assured to find a dedicated audience in the United States. As of this writing, the novel is among Amazon’s Top 20 Mysteries and Thrillers (although neither genre seems to really fit the book). Perhaps its success will allow for more of Hallgrímur’s Icelandic language novels to make it into English translation in the future.