A Time to Die by Tom Wood is the 6th action packed thriller featuring the enigmatic assassin Victor (Available August 2, 2016).
With the glut of assassins in literature and film, I considered my bias when it comes to the contract killer in fiction before reading even the first paragraph of A Time to Die by Tom Wood.
I have a two-fold measure: assassins should be cold-blooded murderers, in it for the money and not simply knocking off other killers (meaning they are equal employment opportunists that won’t discriminate against hits based on race, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or religion); and they needn’t be former operatives who’ve trained with and worked for the CIA, MI6, or some other government waterboarding agency, only to become disillusioned and take to freelancing.
There are a few exceptions (my prejudice, remember), like Lawrence Block’s Keller and Chris F. Holm’s Michael Hendricks. Otherwise, every time I hear about a “good” assassin I cringe. That go-to trope needs to have a hit placed on it.
Here’s what I prefer: Charles Bronson/The Mechanic (1972) hard-hitting. Sure, we see him killing (note: I’m not being nitpicky over hitman vs. assassin semantics) a member of “the organization,” but there’s no doubt he didn’t spend his time leading up to that moment being particular about assignments. He’s merciless, and his wannabe apprentice played by Jan-Michael Vincent is another pure-to-form killer.
Or, here’s the real gold standard: The Day of the Jackal (1971) by Frederick Forsyth (made into the 1973 film starring Edward Fox). Presented in a stark, no bull-pucky documentary style, it details an assassin’s trade and the exhaustive search to apprehend him (book sections are titled “Anatomy of a Plot,” “Anatomy of a Manhunt,” and “Anatomy of a Kill”). No glamorization.
And, I’ll even include Showtime’s Dexter for the first few seasons—yeah, technically he’s not a contract killer, but he somehow bridges the assassin-serial killer camps, and he definitely fits under the cutthroat umbrella I’m talking about.
So, what did I discover about A Time to Die after writing the paragraphs above? Well, “Victor, the Assassin” is one cool cat, and within the first couple of chapters, he finds his assigned target—a character named Fletcher, who begins to realize that he has gotten himself into grave danger.
Fletcher explains he’s fallen victim to a honey trap, lamenting, “The Chinese are still using the spy playbook from the sixties…” Why not, right? Human nature evolves slowly, or not at all, in men like Fletcher. The powers that be have decided to eliminate Fletcher via Victor because the tart Fletch was bedding has become talkative. On a train bound from Moscow to St. Petersburg, cat and mouse confront each other:
His gaze was locked onto Victor. The skin to the left of his Adam's apple trembled with the thundering pulse below it. “It doesn't matter what I know about you because I'm never going to become a threat to you. Because you're here to kill me, aren't you?”
“Yes,” Victor said.
Fletcher, knowing Victor’s reputation, doesn’t run, fight, or grovel for his life because, apparently, Victor is that much a badass. Instead, Fletcher asks that he be given a somewhat dignified ending. He doesn’t want to look like a suicide, as his wife and kids would have a hard time dealing with that demise. So, in a calm fashion, Victor suggests that Fletcher goes to the dining car, order a well-done steak, and choke on it.
While Victor is waiting for Fletcher to do his job for him, he identifies another hit man by manner and clothing on the train. The second assassin, Kreiger, is out to waste Victor and nearly gets the jump on our protagonist, but à la From Russia with Love (1963), our antihero turns the tables and, in a twist, decides not kill the German for professional reasons.
Meanwhile, poor Fletcher didn’t have, I’m guessing, one waiter who knew the Heimlich maneuver because he kept his word to Victor and offed himself as instructed. Why didn’t you jump off the train, Fletcher? Hide away in a baggage compartment? Anything?
Later, Victor’s supervisor, Banik, seems incredulous, “Coroner’s report: accidental death. How the devil did you manage to pull that off?” Yeah, I don’t blame Banik’s stupefaction because I was privy to the hit myself and I’m still not sure how Victor managed that psychological mind game.
Moving right along, Banik has a new mission for Victor: to seek out and eradicate Milan Rados, former member of “a Serb paramilitary outfit” that burned people to death. Banik also warns that a hit has been placed on Victor’s life, which is information that would have helpful had it been more timely. Even so, the tidbit comes in handy after he picks up a one-night stand:
Her right hand appeared a moment later with an automatic handgun in her grip. It was a .22 caliber SIG with a suppressor, small and compact.
She aimed it at his chest and squeezed the trigger.
I’m sure you know any greatest assassin worth his weight has a way out of this and any other deadly situation, and Victor will be off and running for Belgrade where Rados is assumed to be working in organized crime.
Mr. Wood knows how to keep a nimble plot moving along at adrenaline junkie speed, slowing down only when it’s absolutely necessary to add another layer of plot. If you want to read a book for which the label “action-packed” was meant, then you will enjoy this book.
Did it measure up on my two-fold scale? Not exactly, Victor mostly targets other bad guys and he’s tailored to the standard profile.
After reading A Time to Die I lingered on a blurb that reads, “Makes James Bond look like a wannabe.” Movie 007? The Pierce Brosnan version? Sure, I’ll give “Victor, the Assassin” some edge there, but not the James Bond of the short stories that I’ve read and written about here at Criminal Element. Stories like “The Hildebrand Rarity” (1960) shows a cold, calculating killer that could melt Victor with one raised eyebrow.
Maybe “Bond…wannabe” refers to the pace of the narrative that is Jason Bourne swift. If you like that as well as a thriller written in a competent fashion, then you are the right audience for A Time to Die.
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David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books and author of The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.