Let’s hear it for the tropes. As reviewers, we can pretend to turn up our noses at them. But the fact is they can be a hell of a lot of fun. The hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold trope? Pretty Woman. The MarySue trope? Grease. (And almost every Disney film ever made.) The tormented-reluctant-alpha-hero trope? Die Hard. (And almost every western/thriller/romance film ever made.)
But really, my favorite character trope is the hitman-with-a-code. He’s the best killer out there, a super-ninja who always gets his target, only he has a moral compass that won’t let him hurt kids/dogs/Mamas. And there are just so many of them out there, it’s a wonder anyone gets assassinated at all. We’re talking about every killer-wannabe from the huntsman who couldn’t kill Snow White to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dexter. In Grosse Pointe Blank, he’s the hitman who spurns the French government’s contract to blow up a Greenpeace vessel with the line, “No way—I have scruples.” In Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld, it’s any member of the Assassins’ Guild, whose motto is “Nil Mortifi Sine Lucre” (“No killing without profit”) but whose members are not allowed to kill the defenseless. (Dr Cruces: “No, we do it for the money. And, because we above all must know the value of a human life, we do it for a great deal of money.”)
Lucky for me, now there’s Scott Marlow’s Assassin Without a Name, the antihero of The Killing Knife. When we meet our nameless protagonist, he’s in the middle of an ordinary work day—just wondering why it’s taking so long for his intended victim to get on with the dying. Fine Wine, the first story in the anthology, is little more than an introduction to the Assassin’s world. The killer-for-hire is not, he assures himself, a monster. Sure, he’ll still kill his victim, and he’ll still refuse the offer of a bribe because he’s already been paid—but after he makes the gut-eviscerating cut his employer requested, he will add a subtle “mercy” cut to end the victim’s suffering. That’s Moral Code, baby. The amusing part comes when our noble assassin is offered a bribe he can’t refuse: a five-year supply of the intended victim’s incredible syrah wine, a victory over both the moral and business scruples of the killer.
In the next two stories, the Assassin Without a Name reveals further signs of a moral compass in direct opposition to his business priorities. While he does manage to kill both living and already-dead in Killing the Dead, the assassin finds himself seeking reassurance from one of the clerics that even one such as he could seek absolution.
“As a holy servant of my god and church,” Father Kem said, “my word is always representative of…” He stopped, sparing me the remainder of his practiced doctrine. Then he sighed. “The church oftentimes takes a hard stance against men such as yourself. But my own thoughts… I think all men deserve a chance to make amends.”
It was enough for me.
Scott Marlowe just plain gets it. Nobody wants to read about an assassin who questions his work, or who has moments of weakness. So these are for the most part, tiny blips on the radar of an accomplished professional killer. “They almost had me; in a fair fight, I’d be dead. But I never fight fair…” In the end, despite (possibly) saving the world, and (probably) saving the girl in Night of Zealotry, he remains comfortable in the skin of the killer. “I make no excuses regarding my love for wine; it may very well be my only vice. Killing people? That’s not a vice. Not for me anyway. It’s just what I do.”
If you’re looking for a complex novel with deep thematic threads, Killing Knife isn’t the book for you. But if you’re up for a collection of fast-paced, tightly crafted little rollercoaster miniatures with plenty of snarky humor, then these stories are guaranteed to entertain. I’d give them four stars and a plea to Scott Marlowe to give this engaging killer a full-length novel to play in. He nails the hitman-with-a-code trope, and makes it his own.
Find a copy here from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com