Afterthoughts: ‘Killer’ by Dave Zeltserman

Killer by Dave Zeltserman

In a Nutshell: Superbly written with a real twist in the tale, Killer is a novel which will appeal to lovers of crime fiction and the general readers alike. As a reader who usually ‘crosses the road’ to get away from crime fiction, Zeltserman has single-handedly convinced me that I should rethink my long-established custom of shying away from the genre.

So welcome to my first official review of 2010 – Killer by Dave Zeltserman, which is published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail on the 7th January, which as it happens is today, so my review for this one is about as timely as it gets….for once :).

Such was my haste in reading this reasonably short novel that I didn’t prepare a forethoughts post beforehand for Killer. So before I go on to tell you what I thought of the novel, I’ll begin this review by telling you a little bit about it, before providing a bit of background info on the author Dave Zeltserman, and my reasons for reading Killer in the first place; because in all honesty ‘crime fiction’ is a genre I usually shy away from (with the exception of the more literary Scandinavian form of the genre)

Presenting Dave Zeltserman’s Killer
So what’s Killer all about then? Well it’s a crime novel penned in the noir style of fiction as established by the great James M. Cain. It’s presented in the first-person, following former hitman Leonard March during the first few weeks of newly found freedom, having served 14 years in prison for the heinous crimes of murder that he committed on behalf of the Mafia.

With a substantial tally of 28 executions underneath his murderous belt, one would consider March to be a bit of an unsavoury character, and he is to a large extent. But leaving prison at age 62 with no real ambitions to return there, Killer is more about March trying to come to terms with his past, while exorcising his inner demons, and trying to make amends with his out-of-touch children. In other words Killer is about Leonard March starting afresh on the right side of the law, and he’s happily setting off on the right foot – his caseworker has fixed him up with a job as a janitor (albeit low paid and with unsociable hours), together with an apartment to live in (albeit over-priced and borderline derelict). Yay!

It all sounds a tad boring so far doesn’t it? Well I see where you’re coming from but believe me Killer is far from tedious, because we haven’t factored in all of the things that may well prevent March from making the clean start that he so desires. Firstly March is adamant that he doesn’t want to relocate away from the area where he perpetrated most of his crimes; a crazy decision perhaps, given the number of enemies March would have cultivated, but he has his reasons.

Secondly, yep it’s those pesky aforementioned enemies. There are a lot of people baying for Leonard March’s blood, as he well knows, and most dangerous of all are the parties representing the Mafia boss Salvatore Lombard. You may not have picked out on the fleeting fact above, that 14 years is an uber-short sentence to serve for a tally of 28 murders, but March cut a deal with the DA (he kind of tricks him too, but no spoilers), and he ‘shops’ Lombard as an organised crime honcho, thereby getting a reduction in his own sentence for his trouble.

Along with the Mafia henchmen there’s a second group of almost equal danger to March, the victim’s families and the general populous, who don’t believe (and quite rightly so) that March served the time for the crime, instead gaining freedom when in reality he should really have lived out the rest of his life behind bars. And to a lesser degree – in terms of life-threatening danger – there’s also the reporters and wannabe-biographers who are greedy for a bit of fame and fortune.

So despite getting off to one of the best of starts he could have hoped for, what with the job and the apartment and all that, there’s a lot of people out there looking for Leonard March. His door is always going to be a knockin’ (if anyone can figure out where he lives), and the odds look very stacked against the poor old retired hitman, looking to live out his twilight years in peace. And on that cliffhanger fellow readers, I’m going to say nothing more with regards to the story (well you’d be mad at me for getting into ‘spoiler territory’ wouldn’t you? :)). So we’ll move swiftly on to briefly look at the author of Killer, Dave Zeltserman, and my reasons for reading this book.

Who is Dave Zeltserman and why did I want to read him?

Dave Zeltserman. Photo credit: Judy Zeltserman Dave Zeltserman is a Boston-based author who is quickly gaining respect for his noir-writing prowess. He already has a small tally of crime novels under his belt. Killer is his third Serpent’s Tail published novel to date (the other two are Small Crimes and Pariah), and as a collective Zeltserman refers to this trio as a ‘badass gets out of jail’ trilogy. Therein that ‘tagging’ of his trilogy lies the first hook that got me interested in reading him. Who could resist reading about a ‘badass’ gaining his freedom, especially when one couples this with Serpent’s Tail press release for Killer which exclaims that the fictional world of Zeltserman is populated with ‘hardboiled anti-heroes where there are no good guys and life is a daily struggle for survival’? It all sounds a bit anarchic to me – a bit ‘dog eat dog’ even – which if I’m being entirely truthful, is absolutely my kind of thing.

Sure, Killer more generally comes under the heading of ‘crime fiction’ – a genre which I’ve openly admitted to not being particularly drawn towards – but I couldn’t help thinking, especially when Zeltserman refers to his work himself as ‘psychotic crime fiction’, that he has more to offer than just plain, vanilla-flavoured crime fiction. I was right about that too, as my summing up of Killer is now about to show.

Killer – Good, bad or just downright ugly?
So the promise of Killer being a good novel is there, as one would expect when a well-oiled marketing machine has set its wheels in motion, but ultimately is Killer a novel that I think should be read by all? Well, I’ve got to say ABSOLUTELY, YES on that score, and as much as I’d built myself up to read Killer I was still pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

Killer makes for a compelling read, and I’ve got to say that Zeltserman is a very clever and well-considered noir writer. Rather than deliver a straightforward narrative with Killer, Zeltserman intersperses the present day story – March’s dealing with his new found ‘freedom’ – with chronological reflections on his career as a hit man. This not only has the effect of the reader seeing the extent of March’s coldheartedness as a killer, it also juxtaposes nicely with his efforts to turn over a new leaf. However, these chronological flashbacks also build a story on their own. This parallel story remains largely separate from the present-day narrative, until the very end, when both stories collide in a genius stroke, to deliver a thrilling and wholly memorable reading experience.

Mainly though I love the depth of character that Zeltserman has injected into his chief protagonist, Leonard March. I love how he toys with him; piquing the character’s sense of paranoia; having him struggle with his psychotic tendencies; but always showing him to be calculating, cunning and wholly ‘professional’. For the most part Zeltserman makes the reader feel sorry for March – which considering his heinous crime record is a remarkable feat – but Zeltserman has his motives for manipulating the reader in this certain way, and the reason why become clear as the novel draws towards its climatic ending.

In closing then I’d say that Killer is a well crafted novel that fans of the genre, and the general reader alike will most probably enjoy. The pace of Killer is not as ‘breakneck’ in terms of action as it may be with other titles in this category (I’m not a huge authority on this so I wouldn’t know for sure), but Killer’s main strength lies primarily in its literary qualities i.e. the main character’s fight with his inner self. That said, the story as a whole is superb, and the real twist in the tale at the end is worth the reading investment, which at 214 pages isn’t really a lot is it?

So after reading Killer I’m left in no doubt about Zeltserman’s sublime ability as a crime writer. In fact he has single-handedly shown me that perhaps I should rethink my long-established tendency to steer away from American crime fiction. If this doesn’t stand testament to the quality of Dave Zeltseman’s authorship, then I don’t know what would.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Serpent’s Tail | 07 January 2010 | £7.99 | PAPERBACK | 214 PP | ISBN: 9781846686443

:: What others have said about Killer::

  • “Killer is a major novel of crime and likely the book that will win Dave Zeltserman a much wider audience”Ed Gorman, Ed Gorman Blog.
  • “To put it simply, Killer is a brilliant character study that will rip the literary rug right out from under the reader’s tightly-curled toes.”Corey Wilde, The Drowning Machine.
  • “The ending left me feeling that this book went out with a whimper rather than a bang.”Cheryl, Madhouse Family Reviews
About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).


  1. I agree. ‘Killer’s main strength lies primarily in its literary qualities i.e. the main character’s fight with his inner self.’. Top article.Top book.

  2. Mark Jones says:

    Um.. great, as in: in-depth review, but sure I’m sold on the content – kinda creepy soundin… though I am quite curious about the inner workings of the criminal mind.. but then.. horses for courses I guess, but still an interesting review -MJ

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      I think I know where you’re coming from Mark. I mean how can a Mafia hitman reintegrate into society, and forget his abhorrent past. Even the thought of trying does sound creepy, in which case you should really read it. Trust me! 🙂

  3. Mark Jones says:

    oops… how useless am I? I mean to type “Um.. great, as in: in-depth review, but NOT sure I’m sold on the content…” etc. sorry folks MJ

  4. Great review. I never really considered myself a mystery/crime reader, but after The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo I’ve been wandering around in that section a little more. I actually just read Jar City by an Icelandic author whose name is wholly unpronounceable and therefore unreproducible off the top of my head. I’ve heard good things about this book…I think he won an award for it or was shortlisted.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      Lauren! Long time, no hear. I hope all is well. I’m not sure this novel has won any awards yet – it is brand spanking new remember – but I think one of the other ones I mentioned, possibly Pariah, did win a recent award. Anyone?

      Take care for now Lauren, and shame on you for not emebering that poor Icelandic author’s name 🙂