He’s the one with the gun. The threat. The person the good, and slightly less bad, run from. He, and it’s usually a he, is the worst of the worst, because he goes the furthest. The criminal we perhaps find it hardest of all to understand. The hitman.
The cold blooded killer is, in crime fiction and beyond, a classic bogeyman. Hitmen contain the perfect mix of attributes, looking just like us so they pass unnoticed, silent and unknowable. The monster standing at the foot of the bed when you wake up in the dead of night. A human with inhuman instincts. Where the rest of us put life ahead of money, these people do not. A stranger is an item to be destroyed for reward.
Fiction breaks into that dark and silent world. The hitman as a character. Their life spelled out and examined. A protagonist with decent intentions either runs from or chases after the killer. We catch glimpses of the hitman. The constant threat in the background, emerging only in the moments of greatest impact. When the bad becomes the protagonist we see much more.
It can be, often, rather sad. Go back to 1936 and Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale. Raven is our protagonist. A hitman. Killing a politician in Europe to provoke war. Seemingly cold hearted and just a man looking to make money, consequences be damned. It opens with the ultimate hitman sentiment: “Murder didn’t mean much to Raven. It was just a new job.”
That establishes our central character as the dead-eyed monster. The fearless man to fear. In two short sentences we are made to understand that Raven is not the same as us. The immediate instinct is to think of someone steely, focused, evil. The slick killer with a plan and the skill to carry it out. By the end of that opening page we already know that Raven is more, or perhaps less, than that:
“But Raven had never had a girl. The hare-lip prevented that. He had learned, when he was very young, how repulsive it was. He turned into one of the tall grey houses and climbed the stairs, a sour bitter screwed-up figure.”
Our hitman is pathetic. He’s not cold hearted at all. He’s an angry, palpably lonely virgin who refuses to see a place for himself in the world. It is not a conscious choice to separate himself from a world that he disdains, but an inability to engage in a world that he believes has and will continue to reject him. The monster in the shadows is little more than a self-loathing sad-sack. But even that is misleading.
What Raven shows us is the ultimate weakness in the hitman—they’re not monsters at all. We see Raven being betrayed and going on the run. We see his relationship with Anne, the showgirl and detective’s fiancée. She is what he wants. Not the money. Not to be detached from the rest of the world. A woman who might be a friend. Who might love him. When all the evil things he’s done are pulled away and all that remains is the nugget at the center of his soul, what we see are broken pieces, longing to be fixed. There remain elements within a man like Raven that we struggle to understand, like the bitterness that could drive someone so far, but much of the mystery is gone. The spectre that chased our hero and was in turn chased by them feels rather more ordinary.
In fiction we get to see the hitman at various stages of life. The youngster stumbling into the grim world and finding the home they didn’t know they were looking for. Then the assassin at the peak of their power, experienced and skilled, filled with the knowledge needed to keep them out of the reach of the police. Then there’s the old hitman. Perhaps too old to be effective as they once were, or too old to see the thrill in the work anymore. The hitman heading for the exit.
This is perhaps the hitman at their most human. Each life reaches a point of change, a moment where the work of the past has been completed and a peaceful life earned. Retirement, and safety. How do you walk away from a world that either wants you close or wants you dead? In the always outstanding Don Winslow’s 2006 novel The Winter of Frankie Machine, we see a hitman who’s made it to the outside, but not quite far enough.
A likeable man with an ordinarily complicated life: “All Frank’s days are busy, what with four businesses, an ex-wife, and a girlfriend to manage.”
From the outside he projects normality. This is the hitman after the killing is done. A life so plain that no suspicion can be raised. Reveling in the challenge of living the way everyone else does. He’s the one who got away. A life made clean after years of dirty work. All hitmen live every second on alert. It may be the one thing they all have in common. Every character that does the job does so with the heightened awareness of a man who should be on the run. A man with a lot to hide.
“Tonight he drives home and there’s a car in the alley.
“A car he doesn’t know.”
Frank recognises threat immediately because Frank has lived the life. He knew what he was running from and he knew it would give chase. Rarity makes people like him too valuable to be allowed a quiet life. There are so few people that are prepared to kill. So few of the willing are able. To find someone who can not only take a life but do it a second and third time is the ambition of the criminal master. Finding a man who can do the job without getting caught. Being good means being indispensable. No retirement allowed.
There is a key difference between Frank and Raven that goes beyond experience. We like Frank Machianno. He’s engaging and smart. We find ourselves rooting for a man we know from the outset has blood on his hands. While we may want Raven to have the chance to change and live a relatively normal life, we understand he’s probably too far gone. The same goads, traumas, and self-hatred that set him on this road will keep him there, all the way to whatever ending he finds. Frank is different. We don’t want him to become a different person, just to see him return to the one he’d been able to be in retirement, to the normal life he had created.
Is it OK that we’re cheering for a killer? It’s easy to feel squeamish about wanting characters like Frank to succeed, a reminder that no matter how engaging they are, they remain capable of doing things that we are not and that no person should be. Yet it’s not the killer we’re supporting, but the better person inside them. We want Frank to escape for the sake of the man we saw at the opening of the book. The man defined by his family and his hobbies and his normality. We’re on his side because he’s not a monster but instead a cracked version of the rest of us.
It’s curious to see the various portrayals of hitmen. They can be the villain or the anti-hero. They can be isolated and cruel; they can be engaging and witty. They are always people who have chosen crime as a career. This informs us that they are bad or broken. They’ve made a choice we never could. Separated themselves from us. Yet there are many characters that kill and are presented as something better.
James Bond got himself a licence so even premeditation makes him a spy rather than a hitman. Parker is chasing money so all of the bodies he leaves in his wake are the victims of a thief going too far rather than a hitman lining his pocket along the way. When protecting your country or stuffing your bank account with other people’s cash is the motivation, you get to be pretend you’re not a hitman. It’s easier to follow along in the wake of the killing when it isn’t the profession of the protagonist. Step beyond the real world and we see greater comfort with killing, assassins as heroes of fantasy novels like Robin Hobb’s acclaimed farseer trilogy. Here it is the world that is strikingly different from ours, and that seems to allow enough separation to feel relaxed about supporting Fitz in his work. In these novels the hitman is the most familiar thing to us, their humanity what we attach ourselves to. In the real world they’re the most distant.
The unfamiliar is attractive. We don’t want to kill, but we want to understand why people do. These ordinary people, so like us in many other ways, but capable of something we find unconscionable. What’s absent in these people? What has broken? Our need to comprehend will make us explore the darkness along with the killer. That’s where fiction gives us our best chance at understanding.
Malcolm Mackay’s latest novel is The Night the Rich Men Burned. His acclaimed debut series, the Glasgow Trilogy, has been nominated for countless prizes. Most recently, the Glasgow Trilogy was included in the Boston Globe’s 2015 Best Books of the Year list in the mystery category, and The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, the first book in the trilogy, was nominated for a 2016 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. Mackay was born in Stornoway on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis, where he still lives.