Review: The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, Hallgrimur Helgason

Tomislav Bokšić is in big trouble.  Despite being an environmentally friendly hitman who only ever needs one bullet to finish a job, who prides himself on his customer-orientated approach (the victim barely suffers), he has just accidentally killed an FBI agent.  Best known in killing circles as Toxic, Bokšić is a Croatian-born ex-soldier who has been living a very good life in New York, complete with big television, nice appartment and beautiful girlfriend.  Now he finds himself bundled off into exile by his bosses to maintain an LPP (Lowest Possible Profile) in Zaghreb, he realises at the airport that the FBI are waiting at his departure gate so hurriedly kills an unfortunate man he meets in a toilet and steals his air ticket.  Bokšić finds himself on a plane to Iceland, posing as his victim who just so happens to be a priest, Rev. David Friendly. What follows is a novel that utterly defies the conventions of ordinary crime genre.

This is not the kind of novel that I generally read but the title was intriguing.  Initially I found Bokšić an extremely unlikeable narrator, he is coarse, rude and of course, extremely violent.  As the story progressed however, Toxic’s extremely wry sense of humour began to win me over.  He finds himself a true stranger in a strange land as he arrives in Iceland, instantly claimed by the family of evangelicals who cheerfully believe him to be Rev. Friendly and expect him to appear on their television show.  Helgason is clearly enjoying himself, largely at his own country’s expense in exploiting Icelandic stereotypes via Toxic’s general ignorance and bewilderment with the ‘Lilliput island’ that he finds himself on, a country with no guns or prostitutes and a minuscule amount of violence but which inexplicably has a large number of crime writers.  Homesick for his firearm, Toxic considers that you would have to be a genius to get a murder weapon in Reykjavik in the first place, let alone kill anybody.

Hallgrimur Helgason

Toxic’s inability to pronounce Icelandic names means that Gunnhildur becomes Gunholder and the famous cafe in Reykjavik goes from Kaffibarinn to Cafe Bahrain via Toxic’s mangled speech.  There are a number of references that take a concentrated reader, not least the one to the 2006 Icelandic entry to the Eurovision Song Contest, which takes on an added dimension for the Croatian exile.  Don’t remember that one?  I do.  Toxic slumps around the city, judging the attractiveness of each woman he meets based on how long it would take him to start dreaming about her if he were stuck up in a mountain for a month and she was the only female available.  He finds the healthy living and friendliness of the people stifling, remarking on the smoking ban that ‘only after fifty f***ing warless years do you start worrying about things like air quality in bars’, he is terrified too by the silence of the countryside.  Although we are obviously not supposed to take Toxic’s judgements seriously, I still felt as though I had a genuine impression of Reykjavik from his description.

It would be naive and simplistic to cast this as a story of Toxic’s redemption; even at the end of the novel he is not someone I would choose to spend time with.  Still, there is a real sense of him coming to terms with his past and choosing what his future will be.  In his own way, he has a remarkably clear perspective on his MHM (Most Horrible Moments), commenting on the war he fought  that ‘a nation is the sum of our strengths as well as of our collective stupidity’.  Toxic visited the town that Croatia was able to annex as a result of the battle that claimed the lives of his father and brother.  Upon arrival, he looks around and thinks that it’s  ‘s***’.  Toxic is not a man to break down with remorse, like Harry Flashman, by his very moral detachment he is able to lift up a mirror to the world around him.  Helgason’s novel is a witty and intelligent examination of social mores, a kind of bizarre twenty-first century comedy of manners as imagined by Quentin Tarrantino.  The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning is vividly written with a very wicked turn of phrase but Toxic’s story is not for the faint-hearted.

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The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrímur Helgason
Published by Amazon Crossing on January 24th 2012
Genres: Fiction, General, Literary
Pages: 256
ISBN: 161109139X

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