No Ordinary Assassin: Killstanbul by Matthew Di Paoli

by Andrew Mondry   

In Killstanbul (El Balazo Media), Matthew Di Paoli’s entrancing first novel, we are introduced to a world so beautiful and hypnotic, that we forget we could be crushed at any moment by its history, its geography or its myth.

Killstanbul is a literary crime novel, and Di Paoli immediately launches us into a world unknown to most: the world of hired assassins. The novel opens with a noir-style scene where the reader is introduced to Carolus, an aging, but still charming and disciplined, assassin. After seducing a waitress, we follow Carolus to one of his “hits.” Although the first scene, like much of the book, revels in the tropes inherent to the hard-boiled genre, Carolus is no ordinary assassin—he’s an artist. It is an artist’s attention to detail, both Carolus’s and Di Paoli’s, that separates this novel from most in its genre.

As the novel progresses, Carolus’s character is revealed through his relationships with his sister, her husband, whom he does not like, and the mysterious “Yule Lads,” the dwarf-like creatures of Icelandic folklore who trained him to be an assassin. Di Paoli slowly drags us down the frozen rabbit hole, obscuring the lines between fact, fiction and myth. As we are introduced to the Yule Lads we slowly lose our grip on reality, much like Carolus. For instance, Di Paoli writes about one of Carolus’s encounters with an unnamed Yule Lad, “He shut the door behind him. Shivering in his brown leather slippers, he stepped out onto the wet earth and searched for what he already knew was there. By the log pile to the left of the porch, he saw two green eyes. He walked toward them, the cattle dog jingling slowly behind him. The eyes continued to brighten, un-blinking and holy.”

It is easy for the reader to question Carolus’s mental state since Di Paoli makes it clear that only Carolus sees the Yule Lads. However, they are so essential to the story, and to Carolus’s character, that the reader must believe these little creatures are real. For instance, Di Paoli writes about Carolus’s interaction with a Yule Lad named Stúfur: “The other Lads called him Itty Bitty. He wore brown mittens and spoke with a growl that did not suit his stature. He barely reached Carolus’s waist.” Di Paoli writes so casually about these mythical creatures that we are forced to assume it is natural for a grown man—an assassin even—to interact with them.

Though Carolus’s assassinations are at the core of the story, as the novel progresses we start to suspect it is not the physical act of killing someone that creates conflict, but rather, it is how Carolus, who seems to have had a rather normative childhood, started “the hunt.” The Yule Lads, who at first seem like nothing more than a childhood myth to keep children from behaving badly, begin to take on a menacing existence. These little dwarves are not necessarily the stuff of childhood fantasy, they are the product of human nature and fear.

The Yule Lads help unravel the complexities of Carolus. Throughout the novel, Di Paoli uses the Yule Lads to uncover Carolus’s childhood, bouncing from present action back to previous moments when the Yule Lads were training him. As we go deeper and deeper into the novel—and farther away from Iceland, to the Istanbul melded into the novel’s title—we also go deeper into the mind and history of Carolus. His dry sense of humor, wit, and charm are what initially attract us to this assassin at the peak of his career, but his flaws are what make him a truly interesting character.

Overall, the novel moves along gracefully. Di Paoli wastes little time getting into the heart of the beast. Clearly influenced by Graham Greene, Denis Johnson, and a little Murakami thrown in for good measure, Di Paoli blends myth with reality, and literary fiction with genre. His characters are sharp and witty without being unbelievable, and, given its brevity and pace,  the novel is a quick read. Killstanbul is incredibly original, its setting dangerously attractive, its characters haunted and haunting. Di Paoli has written a novel worth reading.