Film-maker’s foray into fiction marks a digital breakthrough



After last month’s confession of my impulsive ereading habits I set myself a task: to spend the month with a single ebook. The news that Richard House’s monumental thriller The Kills was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize cemented my purpose.

I came across House’s novel at the beginning of the year, when the first part, Sutler, was released in a digital edition, several months before being published in traditional hardback.

House was better known as a film-maker than a writer, so the promise of enhanced audio-visual content was enticing, and his publisher, Picador, was capitalising on the marketing opportunities offered by digital-media-savvy writers like him in a “free-if- you-tweet-about-it” promotion.

The first reviews were really good, but at the time I didn’t have the equipment to capitalise on the enhanced edition, which isn’t supported by Android devices. I promptly forgot about it until the Booker announcement. At this stage I was technologically enabled, so with some trepidation – the full printed edition runs to more than 1,000 pages – I logged on and pressed download.

In form, the ebook version of The Kills definitely trumps the printed edition. At the moment the hardback version can only be bought in its entirety (Picador, £20) and the sheer weight of it makes it an intimidating prospect. However, there is also an important psychological factor at work in my preference for the digital tome. You can buy the ebook in its four discrete parts (£7.79; or £2.99 each) and it seems more manageable and less of a commitment as a result. (War and Peace was also a four-part saga and its first published edition also ran to more than 1,000 pages. How many people do you know who have actually tackled that?)

In subject matter, however, The Kills has broad appeal. In Sutler, the plot begins as a typical man-on-the-run political thriller, as our protagonist Stephen Lawrence Sutler is accused of embezzling money from the company he works for, which is involved in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq.

Pacy and sharp
The writing is pacy, sharp and wonderfully visual; even without the extra digital content House brings a cinematic touch to the story. The Massive adds more complexity to the story of Sutler’s plight and flight, offering a prequel to Sutler and detailing the corruption at the heart of the rebuilding of Iraq and the contamination of the workmen by poisonous substances.

The penultimate part, The Kill, is the most challenging and self-consciously literary of the books. House brings his story to Europe so that he can indulge his taste for metafiction and the avant-garde. It is, essentially, the crime novel that Sutler reads in the first instalment.

It is the portion of the book that likely ensured House’s Booker nomination and will likely lose him the most readers. House plays with form too in the digital format of this part of the book, allowing digital readers to choose how to read it – in chronological sequence or character by character – but it is still a slog.

Matthew Bourne moment
The quartet concludes in Cyprus with The Hit, in which a hit man has a Matthew Bourne moment of conscience that results in a series of actions that bring (only some of) the novel’s loose threads together. House enjoys frustrating expectations of a neat ending.

The Kills was written with the audio-visual enhancements in mind, and House created the extra material himself too. As is fitting for what is essentially a literary mystery, this material is fed to us like clues.

As the topography of various destinations is disseminated in stunningly scenic filmed sequences, we become Sutler adrift in Cuba or Istanbul; awed by the landscape, not sure what we are looking out for.

Elsewhere, characters’ inner monologues are revealed in recorded material, and answering-machine messages stutter to life. It adds a layer of suspense and emotional depth to the action, particularly in the first two books.

Standard Kindle editions offer the same content by using embedded hyperlinks that bring readers to The Kills’ dedicated website, but this distracts from rather than enhances the action. Essentially, you have to leave the fictional world in order to access it, thus defeating the nature of House’s extratextual creations.

But was all this enough to stop me browsing elsewhere? It was, though perhaps this was because I was being spoon-fed the novel in four parts, which were different enough to make me feel refreshed and yet similar enough to leave me wanting more. The third part, The Kill, came closest to threatening my patience with its postmodern pretensions.

If I had been reading the hardback version, I would likely have abandoned the novel at this point, with the knowledge when retrieving my bookmark that I was only just over halfway through, but the digital version somehow kept me gripped, and I was rewarded with the final instalment, The Hit, which creates a powerful finale from the fragmented material.

The Kills was not shortlisted for the Booker in the end, but its inclusion on the longlist marked an important symbolic stroke of legitimacy for digital-only and digital-first books.

Publishers frequently test new writers or more experimental material digitally before releasing it in more costly printed form, and the attention The Kills received assured the industry that a good book would not be overlooked by the literary establishment just because of its digital form.

Sara Keating is a cultural journalist who contributes regularly to The Irish Times.

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