CIRCLE OF ASSASSINS
BY STEVEN RIGOLOSI

Review by Claire McManus


Imagine you are given an opportunity to rid yourself and the world of a person who's mistreated you, hurt someone you love, or ruined your life. The only catch is that in return you must do a similar favor for someone else. This strangers-on-a-train-type premise is the basis of the extraordinary Circle of Assassins, which goes several steps beyond anything Patricia Highsmith might have imagined. In Strangers on a Train, one of the two killers is certifiably insane. In Circle of Assassins, the set-up is all the more disturbing because each assassin is a fully sane person who's decided to turn to murder as a last resort.

The novel begins with five people answering an ad in a New York City newspaper. The ad begins "Revenge is Sweet" but also includes a disclaimer that the services provided are for "entertainment purposes only." But the ad is just the first step in an intense and complicated plot masterminded by a man the reader knows only as "A." For reasons that become clear as the novel progresses, A uses the ad to conscript five people into his circle of assassins.

The people who answer the ad, and their chosen victims, are extremely diverse. There's the older woman who wants to get rid of a drug dealer who's moved into her neighborhood, the grieving parent who's lost a child to a serial pedophile, the college professor who thinks her dean is holding back racial and gender advancement. The stage is set—each would-be assassin receives her or his assignment, and we watch as they research their victims and execute (or fail to execute) their plots.

What makes Circle of Assassins such an intense and engaging read is the manner in which Rigolosi unfolds the plot like the petals of a rose. Each time you think you have a handle on what makes the assassins tick, or on how deserving or undeserving of murder each victim is, the author unfurls another leaf that makes you question everything you've read up to that point. We see how the assassins' views of themselves may not match that of others; the author is relentless in pulling the rug out from under his characters and us. As the plot twists and turns, Circle of Assassins becomes a morality play about hypocrisy, power, justice, and revenge.

Rigolosi's clear strength is characterization. You'll never forget the conflicted detective, angry feminist, and homicidal brother-in-law, but more than that you'll be impressed by the way Rigolosi packs so much into a brief 220 pages. You will need to suspend disbelief in order to make your way into the story—but once you've done that, the world that Rigolosi draws is a completely consistent and somewhat disturbing look into the darker forces that drive humanity. Part Martin Amis novella, part Minette Walters mystery, and part Magritte painting, Circle of Assassins offers readers a 360-degree view of crime, following not only the murderers and their victims, but also friends and family in the aftermath of the crimes. I don't think I've read such an ambitious and effective genre novel in years. I recommend this highly to those who are looking to break out of typical genre fiction.


 

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