Mob hitmen, government-trained killers, seething vigilantes and freelance psychopaths populate the pages of the anthology, Uncommon Assassins. These 23 stories from the likes of Ken Bruen, F. Paul Wilson, Billie Sue Mosiman and other established and less familiar names in the horror and suspense genres feature such a grim cast of scoundrels that it’s impossible to form a rooting section.
For instance, editor Weldon Burge’s own “Welcome to the Food Chain” introduces us to a greasy husband who wants his trophy wife dead, a gun for hire who fantasizes about all of the impractical but far more satisfying ways he’d prefer to complete his assignments, and a would-be victim who’s as unsavory as her assailants.
The theme’s the challenge. These moral cripples rarely draw our sympathy even when their targets deserve being rubbed out, as they so often do. The editor tweaks our discomfort in trying to determine the least repugnant “hero” of each story. It’s a provocative concept, though the typical tale here is long on action but as short on insight as anything that could be found in the pages of the old Alfred Hitchcock collections where the bad guy gets his way and then, in the ironic twist at the end, gets his. As in so many of those older stories, the killer kills simply because that’s what the plot demands.
Standouts include Michael Bailey’s “Scrub,” wherein we learn why an apartment-house resident refuses to repaint her red door. “The Wellmaster’s Daughter,” from James S. Dorr, engages with its exotic setting, foreboding mood and rich language. Bruen’s “Killer” is an intriguing head-scratcher, Ken Goldman’s “Fat Larry’s Night with the Alligators” is bloody fun, and “Katakiuchi,” from Charles Colyott, has the most satisfying twist.
Overall, however, one could wish that more of the stories in Uncommon Assassins were a little less, well, common.