Book review: The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, by Hallgrímur Helgason

29 03 2017

Hallgrímur Helgason is an Icelandic novelist, artist, and translator who writes in Icelandic and English. Two of his novels have been made into movies, and his artwork has been exhibited in Paris, Boston, and New York as well as in his native Reykjavík.

TheHitmansGuideToHousecleaning

The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning (2008, written in English and subsequently translated by Hallgrímur into Icelandic) starts with ‘Toxic’ (Tomislav Bokšić)—a seasoned Croatian ex-soldier who for many years has been making a living ending other people’s across the US—on the run. Toxic’s latest hit (number 67) has been a success, but he’s been let down by his intel: the target was an operative of the FBI, and the Feds are hot on his trail. Looking to fly out of New York, he’s forced to adopt another alias, which he effects by strangling a second-string televangelist, Father David Friendly, in a restroom stall. Friendly has—had—a ticket to Reykjavík, and so Toxic’s impromptu bolthole turns out to be an Icelandic one. As long as he can pull off his impersonation of a born-again preacher, he’ll be just fine …

Hitman’s Guide is a bit of a misnomer, since housecleaning features only tangentially within the story. And it isn’t really a crime novel in the standard sense, though various felonies are certainly committed during the course of the book; and one always suspects Toxic’s A-Croatian-Yankee-in-King-Olaf’s-Court shtick is ultimately going to derail his efforts towards keeping the lowest possible profile beneath the rather threadbare guise of the deceased Father Friendly. For the most part, it’s a black-comedy rite-of-passage which focusses on the peculiarities of Icelandic culture—the small-town feel of the nation’s capital, the inexplicable shortage of weaponry, the unprepossessing climate—as viewed by an outsider. Hallgrímur has a lot of fun with Icelandic names, which are presented as Toxic (‘Friendly’) hears them (‘Sickreader’, ‘Gunholder’, ‘Torture’, ‘Guard the Beer’ …). The book aims, in its portrayal of Iceland, at a blend of affection and irreverence, and it generally succeeds. I wasn’t always convinced by the comparative ease of Toxic’s redemption, and there is a bit of a slump around the seventh-inning stretch mark, where the story does meander for a couple of chapters, but Toxic’s pottymouthed world-weary streetwisdom retains a certain charm throughout; and the tale starts well, it ends appropriately, and there’s a good deal of acerbic situational humour within.

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