Industry legend Joe Haldeman, a SFWA Grandmaster who’s won just about every award the field has to offer, multiple times in many cases, goes for something a little bit different in Work Done for Hire, a tense near-future psychological thriller in which a former Army sniper-turned author is drawn into a bizarre game of cat-and-mouse.
Nine years after his injuries earned him an honorable discharge from the military, Jack Daley now ekes out a living as an author. When he’s tapped by a Hollywood hotshot to write a short book as sort of a reverse-novelization for a potential movie, Jack accepts, and not just because of the monumental paycheck involved. Soon, he’s happily penning the story of a P.I. hired to act as bait for a cannibalistic serial killer. Easy money, good times. Until the box shows up on his front porch. Inside is a rifle, a down payment of $10,000 and a note telling him that he must use his sniper talents to kill a man. If Jack doesn’t comply, his girlfriend dies.
No fool or willing killer, even after his stint overseas, Jack and his girlfriend Kit (described at one point as his “current pelvic pal”) marshal their resources, and make a run for safer territory. Unfortunately, their attempt to go underground is stymied at every turn, with Jack’s mysterious “employer” seemingly able to find him no matter where he goes or how far off the grid he is. Attempts to get the police, the FBI, and even Homeland Security involved meet with mixed success. Every time he thinks he’s free, the rifle and the “job offer” turn up again, with increasing pressure. And when Kit falls into their hands, it looks as though Jack’s only option is to carry out the hit. But who must he kill? And will he be able to pull that trigger? And in the middle of all this, can he continue to meet his writing deadlines?
Jack’s own adventures are interwoven with chapters of the novel-in-progress, where the terrifying exploits of the killer known as the Hunter are brought to life in a grisly fashion. The psychological thriller is juxtaposed against the more explicit body horror, the paranoia of the road contrasted with the sociopathic precision of a man who might not be human at all. The end result is an odd dissonance, to say the least.
Apart from some vaguely futuristic technology and a few subtle cues in the environment, there’s very little to set this apart from the modern day. Surveillance cameras are a little more prevalent, Jack’s notebook computer is even more portable, and things generally seem about five minutes more advanced in general. Honestly, the most unbelievable aspect is that Jack is getting paid $50,000 for his efforts as a writer! (No wonder he’s so diligent about meeting deadlines, even on the run from cops and killers.) The book-within-the-book features a serial killer who may be man, alien, machine, or something else; it’s purposefully left ambiguous and mysterious, but even so, it’s very much a modern setting. In other words, this is the sort of paranoia-driven, character-focused, atmosphere-intensive thriller that one might expect from King or Koontz during their more experimental days. Haldeman does throw in one interesting twist to the usual “heroes on the run” trope by putting Jack and Kit on bicycles as they pedal down the back roads to safety.
So there’s almost no science fiction, and very little action. What we have is a book where the heroes spend most of their time on the road or in dingy motels, actively trying to escape an omnipresent foe that seems more interested in manipulating them than harming them. What we also have are numerous chapters in which a serial killer abducts people and graphically kills, cooks, and eats them. While aspects of the latter are informed by Jack’s own state of mind and traumatic war-inspired experiences, there’s no actual overlap between the two stories, no point when we get a sudden “the monster was real all along” twist. The only true shared theme is that of the hunter and the hunted.
On the bright side, Jack and Kit are resourceful, competent, adaptable, intelligent, and determined. They make a majority of smart decisions, share information, attempt to cooperate with the authorities, and do their best to outwit their opponents. That’s why the continuing omniscience of Jack’s “employer” is worrisome and baffling, and one of the main things moving along a plot that otherwise consists of the heroes running from one place to the next…and sometimes in circles. Haldeman, who’s long used his military experience to influence and inform his work, does a superb job of giving Jack that world-weary and gun-shy internal monologue that comes from taking human life and regretting it. Jack, of course, is Haldeman’s voice where things like the draft, undesired military service, and government incompetence are concerned.
On the down side…the various elements never fully come together in a cohesive whole, with the Hunter segments almost needlessly over-the-top in their descriptions. It’s a bad day when scenes involving the cooking of human body parts are almost mouth-watering…. And the ending, much as I hate to admit it, is as abrupt as it is hokey. As much as it makes sense under the circumstances, the explanation of who, why, and how, is delivered with casual fashion in less than a page, leaving me rather unsatisfied. While even a subpar Haldeman novel is an enjoyable experience, I fear that Work Done for Hire just doesn’t live up to expectations or the excellence we all know he’s capable of.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.