Owen Laukkanen (owenlaukkanen.com)
The billionaire picked a heck of a day to die.
One of Minnesota’s richest men is gunned down in the driveway of the Saint Paul Hotel, in downtown Saint Paul, less than a hundred yards from where Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere are sitting on a bench, enjoying a sunny April Saturday. The shooter escapes, but not before Stevens and Windermere see his face, and the emptiness in his eyes. Working together, and with the resources of the FBI behind them, the pair soon track the shooter, as he prepares to kill again in Windermere’s old stomping ground, Miami. As the body count mounts, and the FBI fail to find anything linking the victims, they discover the existence of Killswitch, a highly-secure and well-hidden website that allows people to purchase assassinations and that seems to be operating under the auspices of the Department of Defence. Working in the dark, and against the clock, Stevens and Windermere must find the owner of Killswitch before he can accept any more commissions.
Owen Laukkanen’s detective duo – Minnesota BCA’s Kirk Stevens and the FBI’s Carla Windermere – return for their third outing in Kill Fee. One of the problems Laukkanen was always going to face with this teaming was the plausibility of having them work together on a long succession of cases. This is a problem he solves for the longer term as the novel comes to a close, but for this outing, placing them at the scene of the crime effectively side-steps any problems he might have had, and makes their involvement, and their partnership, seem completely natural.
As with previous outings, Kill Fee is told from multiple points of view as the story progresses, including those of the story’s criminal elements. The plot device – the murder-for-hire website – is an update of the age-old hitman storyline that feels like it might have been plucked from today’s headlines. What makes it all the more believable is Parkerson, the man behind it, who comes across as an ordinary everyday businessman who runs the website on the side as a way of generating some extra cash, in the same way that he might sell his IT skills, or his family hierlooms on eBay.
Following the Saint Paul hit, and the identification of his killer, there is a subtle shift in Parkerson’s fortunes. As we watch his world slowly crumbling around him, and get to know more about the man behind Killswitch, we are forced to question how well we know those people who are closest to us. As with both Arthur Pender (The Professionals) and Carter Tomlin (Criminal Enterprise), Parkerson is the man next door, a theme that serves to ground this series of novels in reality and gives the reader a more immediate sense of danger as the story moves towards its climax.
Back in the driving seat once again are Stevens and Windermere, the unlikely team who nevertheless work so well together. The relationship has evolved somewhat since we first met them in The Professionals, though some things remain a constant: the sexual tension continues, though here it serves a more obvious purpose than in the previous two books. Here Kirk has some competition for Carla’s affections in the form of Derek Mathers, her young, good-looking FBI partner and this leads to a number of standoffs between the three characters. As the novel comes to a close, there is a feeling that this irritant, which serves mainly to distract from the central plot, may finally have been put to bed (pardon the pun), leaving room for a bit less teenage angst in the coming books of the series.
As the characters develop, Laukkanen’s work goes from strength to strength, his unusual pairing – characters who feel a little bit more alive and real with each passing novel – and uncommon setting making the Stevens and Windermere series something of a breath of fresh air in an otherwise crowded genre. By turns funny and tense, Kill Fee is an excellent addition to an already-excellent new series. Relatable characters combined with a plausible and well-constructed plot make this a fun and satisfying read that is perfect for anyone who claims to enjoy a good crime novel. Kill Fee puts Owen Laukkanen firmly on my must-read list and I’m already counting down to the arrival of the series’ fourth book later this year.