In “Seventeen: Last Man Standing,” author John Brownlow creates an assassin whose exploits are legendary, whose skill is apparently unsurpassed, and who explains the tricks of his trade to us as we follow his latest assignment in Berlin. It’s what happens after that job that forms the basis for the action that is so engaging and strangely touching we can’t put the book down.
We don’t ever learn Seventeen’s real name, but we do learn about how he became an assassin and about the tragedy of his early life. The story is told in a narrative that is mostly Seventeen narrating, but also some third person narrative when other characters’ actions are important. The flow between the past and present is seamlessly tied together, and the more we learn about Seventeen, the more we respect him.
Brownlow’s ability to create twists and truths that Seventeen realizes a few pages before we do, because the explanation is not immediately forthcoming, is just one example of his fine writing. Creating a main character who is a killer, but making that character also likable and even someone for whom we feel sympathy is no mean feat, but we do like this man who is living the only life he knows. While he expresses regret at some of the choices he’s made, he’s also very pragmatic about the results of those choices.
When he’s assigned to kill his predecessor, Sixteen, his intelligence becomes apparent. But what we also see is how Sixteen, with decades more experience, “plays” the younger killer. And what happens after they tangle is beautiful. Brownlow gives just enough description to enable us to picture the scenes, and he provides enough character background for us to feel emotionally connected with the characters, and he definitely provides a plot that is twisty and at time absolutely creepy, but also emotionally charged.
One of the aspects of the book that I really like is how, at the end, Brownlow makes us realize that so much of what happens in espionage, in politics, in government, is due to the chess masters who play the pieces, those whose lives they control, as if life and the world is just a big chess game. Sometimes you take a draw, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you win. But the real losers are those pieces who are captured and “killed” by the opposition. Those in control, the chess masters, don’t die. They aren’t the ones actually acting out the game—they decide the game.
Finally, I recommend the book for the exquisite writing. The first chapter, about being a spy? The narrator explains, “I mean boring as in mind-crushingly, teeth-grindingly tedious.” The dialogue is pitch perfect, and the short chapters—often just a page or two—work well to keep us reading. This would be a book club book that is different than the usual—grittier and very powerful—and definitely worth discussion.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Hanover Square Press, the publisher, for review purposes.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.