People Die by Kevin Wignall

Well, it is apparently Kevin Wignall Week here at Collected Miscellany (see here and here). Having seen his name pop up around various sites and having heard good things about his writing I recently picked up a copy of his second first book entitled People Die. It turned out to be an fast paced and interesting read; an unique mixture of cold violence and internal doubt. As a spy/noir thriller it works but as a psychological exploration it felt a bit odd or forced. My rather unorganized thoughts are below.

Those familiar with Wignall’s work will not be surprised to find out that People Die is about a hit man. Yes, the title seems appropriate for the subject. The hit man in question is named JJ, or rather his nickname is JJ, his actual name is William Hoffman. The novel opens with JJ executing a hit on a what was supposed to be a devoted family man only to find the victim cavorting with what appears to be a prostitute. After killing his target JJ is mesmerized by the young and beautiful companion to the man he just killed. So mesmerized in fact that he lets her escape, which she does with amazing composure after grabbing a package from under the bed. This women haunts JJ throughout the remainder of the novel.

After relating this little vignette the story skips ahead two years and we find JJ’s world is crashing in around him. His main handler has been killed and it looks like the network is being systematically destroyed. JJ is soon in kill-or-be-killed mode as he discovers that the violence is centered on him; someone wants him dead. What follows is full of twists and turns and plenty of violence as JJ attempts to get to the bottom of this plot.

But what is interesting about People Die is that while he is a hit man, and one with a bounty on his head at that, and so is not afraid to kill people, emotionally he is wrestling with the numbness and disconnection his life has produced. Cut off from his most recent girl friend and people he trusted by the violence that is spreading around him, he begins to wonder how he got to be the person he has become. How did he suddenly find himself a hit man? What would it be like to re-enter the “normal” world with friends and family sharing openly about their daily lives instead of constantly holding back a part of oneself? JJ wonders what came first, his emotional distance or the job that required it?

The plot further pushes this line of doubt as JJ is forced to become involved with the family of the man he killed at the start of the story. In relating with the people who are dealing with the consequences of his actions, he wonders if, like they seem to have, can find a sort of peace or balance between the ugly side of his life and the more normal aspects. His relationship with the man’s teenage daughter, Jem, provides a way for JJ to come to terms with his actions emotionally. Jem provides a sort emotional salve. She somehow helps fill the empty void that he feels inside.

In the end JJ is left with the consolation that some things turned out for the best. After all here he is enjoying a beautiful day of cross country skiing with Jem and he now knows that the beautiful young women whose life he spared in the opening scene had an important purpose when she quietly left the room with the package held tightly to her chest. Unable to fully unpack all of his emotions and motivations, he must console himself that in a life full of death his odd choice to spare her life was a gift only he could give at that moment.

So what to make of all this? Well, People Die is an interesting blend of genres. For most of the book it is simply a sort of edgy spy thriller. JJ coolly and coldly kills people as is necessary to keep himself alive and do his job. He is not a psychopath per se just good at what he does. But what makes the book unique is his emotional search for answers. What I found troubling about the way this played out is the moral ambiguity. Wignall seems interested in exploring how a person could find themselves working as a hit man and what that would mean emotionally. But what he avoids entirely is how an intelligent and seemingly caring person can kill people for a living and not question it. I don’t mean wrestle with his feelings I mean realize the moral consequences of such a life.

What further highlights the lack of moral judgment is the fact that JJ is freelance. Sure some of the work he does is for the British intelligence service but in the end he works for the Russian mafia. In other spy novels the ambiguity comes from the actions the characters are forced to take in service to their country. The work might corrupt them but their initial motivations are usually good. Even traitors in many cases are motivated by idealistic beliefs although they may be false hopes or naive dreams.

With Wignall JJ is simply a freelance hit man because he is an excellent marksmen and has the appropriate detachment. It is interesting to watch him wrestle with how he became what he is, but it is a bit disturbing to think that a hit man could find some sort of emotional balance; killing people in cold blood one day and enjoying family and friends the next. Particularly disturbing, to me at least, was the discussion at the end where JJ and Jem discuss belief in God. Looking at the gorgeous and pristine snow covered fields while they are out cross-country skiing, JJ admits he doesn’t believe in God himself but can see why people do when viewing a scene like the one before them. This is what lead JJ to see the positive results of his decision not to kill the girl in Moscow. I am not sure what to make of this. Does this mean that JJ comes to realize that things often turn out for the good no matter how bad the circumstances might seem? Is this some sort of good karma that resulted from his decision to spare her life? The lack of any sense of morality is odd given the context of their discussion.

Perhaps I am taking the book a little too seriously. People Die is a readable and entertaining story with a dark yet melancholy style and tone; a sort of part noir thriller part psychological exploration. Wignall weaves a good story and ask some interesting questions. But I found JJ a very odd character and Wignall’s avoidance of even a hint of morality or guilt disturbing.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. Kevin, this seems like an opportune moment for me to chip in. Firstly, thanks to you and David for all the attention. I think you raise some interesting questions about People Die (which was actually my first book). The amoral tone is typical of my work and reflects my viewpoint, but I accept, it can raise disturbing questions. That’s why I made JJ a freelance, because I didn’t want him to have the excuse of duty. I don’t see the incongruity at the end though – I think people who work outside preset moral frameworks are even more inclined to think about questions of good and evil, and the ambiguous territory between them. You’re not alone in finding that troubling (some people hated the ending) but if it left you thinking, I feel like I did my job. Thanks.

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