I decided after the rather disappointing read of 101 Reykjavík, which everyone seemed to love, that Hallgrímur Helgason was not my type of author and had no interest in reading any more of his books.
However, the good thing about writing book reviews is that you’re forced to read books you otherwise wouldn’t have picked up.
This time I was in for a pleasant surprise. The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning(Icelandic title: 10 ráð til að hætta að drepa fólk og byrja að vaska upp) turned out to be deeper and more entertaining than I expected after reading the first few pages.
Starting out in a Pulp Fiction fashion with a passionate New York-based Croatian hitman, codename Toxic, describing his joy of killing, peppered with graphic descriptions of his girlfriend’s body parts and farfetched metaphors, the story took an unexpected turn.
It is not at all a thriller, as the author made clear when commenting on the book’s popularity on Amazon, but rather a mix of a black comedy and drama.
The drama bit is what took me by surprise. After making a successful career out of ruthless murders, Toxic accidently kills an FBI agent and is forced to flee the US, alienating himself from his colleagues in the Balkan mafia.
In a twist of fate he ends up in Iceland where he impersonates an American reverend and cons his Icelandic hosts, television preachers, into having him stay in their house. After his cover drops, the couple make it their Christian mission to save the hitman’s soul.
As far as the comedy goes, Hallgrímur makes a mockery out of Icelandic society as seen through the eyes of a foreigner, having him create English words for names of places and people according to how they sound to him and be stunned at the pre-crisis luxury.
Some of the joke names are funny and make sense phonetically, like calling a woman called Gunnhildur “Gunholder”, but others are stretched a little thin, as in calling Kringlumýrarbraut “Kill My Rabbit”. All in all, the joke is overdone.
The preacher couple are comical characters as is their friend, a religiously fanatic karate-fighting priest Toxic refers to as “Torture” (Þórður), and many of the other people he encounters in Iceland, such as the owner of a strip club and immigrant workers.
Albeit exaggerated, they reflect certain members of Icelandic society and carry with them a level of criticism of our community.
But what I really liked about the book is Toxic’s reflections of the past, his experiences in the Balkan war and his reasons for becoming a hitman.
It turns out he isn’t without a conscience or human emotions, they are just buried deep inside him and start to surface little by little as the story progresses.
I don’t know how well Hallgrímur researched the Balkan war but his descriptions sound plausible. Pieces of the puzzle gradually come together as Toxic discusses hidden secrets and searches for a long-lost love.
Toxic’s life in Iceland seems to be evolving into that of a proper citizen when a ghost from the past comes back to haunt him.
The ending is inconclusive, but although I usually hate having to make up an ending of my own, that doesn’t bother me all that much this time.
I came to realize that, to me at least, Toxic’s story wasn’t the main issue in this book. It is actually mostly about war and its horrid consequences, how it mutilates the souls of young frail people and turns friends into enemies.
The story illustrates how the borders between good and evil are often fleeting.
The book also, in spite of the mockery, reminds us Icelanders how lucky we are to live in a relatively peaceful country, a country Toxic mainly describes as quiet, which in recent centuries hasn’t been torn apart by civil war.
The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning was originally written in English but only published as such in 2011, after the Icelandic version hit the market in 2008.
It is available on Amazon.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir