The marketing team behind Kevin Wignall’s latest thriller, Who is Conrad Hirst?, did him a bit of a disservice by linking Hirst to Jason Bourne. Sure both Bourne and Hirst are violent hit-men with identity problems but that is really where the comparisons end.
As a number of reviewers have pointed out, the style here is not that of Ludlum. Wignall is more about psychology than action and more literary noir than airport paperback.
But to be honest, publishers – and probably Mr. Wignall as well – would prefer sales that reflect mainstream success over apt descriptions that might put off readers no matter how accurate. So my advice to readers is just to put Bourne our of your mind and approach Wignall’s work on its own terms.
And what are those terms? Wignall writes psychological novels that have the action, tension and pace of the thriller or espionage genre but the style and depth or more literary works. His sparse and sharp prose somehow adds to both the thriller and literary aspects. His focus on the world of hit-men and his almost amoral perspective add a dark or icy edge; if I may mix my metaphors.
In the case of his latest work, the plot starts out pretty simple. Conrad Hirst is a hit-man working for a German crime boss. After an ugly time in the Balkans and the death of his girlfriend, Hirst preferred the mind-numbing violence and cash of his work. But after his latest hit he decides he has had enough and needs to get out. He sets about freeing himself from this life.
And as is usually the case with a mystery such as this, he immediately hits a snag in the form of a confession of a dying man: “everything is a lie.” This snag soon becomes like the proverbially loose string on a sweater, what was supposed to be a quick solution threatens to unravel everything.
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I will leave the plot details for you to encounter as you read. There are a number of twist and turns that make the book an engaging mystery/thriller on one level. Who exactly is Hirst’s real employer? What really happened in Yugoslavia? Can Hirst really escape his old life and start over?
This section has the sparse clean prose you expect from Wignall. And Hirst is a believable character despite the outlandish nature of killing people for a living, etc. The tension of the mystery is deftly handled. Wignall plays out the details and backstory slowly and creatively as Hirst struggles with staying alive and making sense of the deceptions that seem to be coming at a furious pace.
But as noted above, Wignall is not just interested in crafting a suspenseful thriller with a few creative twists. What he is really exploring are issues like identity, the nature of morality, the dangers of self-deception, etc. He uses hit-men as characters as a way to take these issues to the extreme – make them literally about life and death – but we all deal with them in our lives regardless of our occupation.
It is not surprising that a book with this title would be about identity, but it is not simply a mystery of who Hirst is – of who pays his salary and is behind the orders he follows – but of what he has become and whether that defines him.
Hirst’s relationship with his parents and his inability to face the reality of their deaths – or his ambivalent feelings in response – sends him around the world looking for excitement and a defining role. But his time in Yugoslavia ends not with him becoming the next big photographer – the next Robert Cappa – but instead becoming morally damaged in some important way.
It is this moral damage that leads to his becoming a hit-man who loses himself in his job in order to shut down his conscience and feelings. When what would seem to be a routine job leads Hirst to reconsider this choice, he has to face what he has become in order to understand who he is; and whether a recovery is possible. It is through this journey to slowly uncover the human being inside himself that Wignall uses to explore the question of identity and self-deception.
In one of his letters to his lost love Anneke Hirst is trying to come to grips with the fact that he has been lying to himself and that he has been lied to in fundamental ways. He then wonder if this isn’t part of life:
Maybe this is just an exaggeration of every life – we all live in each other’s fictions, both those created through lies and those born of misunderstanding.
Communication is flawed in important ways. We all deceive others and ourselves in small ways every day. What Wignall explores is where this goes off the rails. What happens when these little white lies or misunderstandings become so complete that we lose who we are; lose an important part of our humanity.
If there is something that makes me uncomfortable about Wignall’s work it has always been what I take to be his moral ambiguity. Wignall doesn’t reflect a moral equivalence like some Cold War spy novelists – the idea that America and the Soviets were equally power hunger and willing to kill for their cause – so much as an absence of clear right or wrong. Each individul has to define what is right and wrong for themselves. The individulaism/relativism is strong but it sometimes feels darker; there is almost a touch of nihilism involved.
Here is how Hirst expresses it when discussing the role of fate in his relationship with Anneke:
It wasn’t fate, though. It wasn’t meant to be. The world was wrong. And it took me a long time to appreciate that it wasn’t the cruelty of some higher force that had robbed me of you, that it was only the same random destruction that was blighting the lives and loves of all of those around us, and many more the world over.
Wignall seems to be saying that the world is simply full of death and destruction and the sooner you accept that the better off you will be. That is fine as a realistic description of life. A Protestant conception of original sin could agree with this after all. But Wignall comes close to portraying this as emptying the world of meaning and truth. The word random seems to have significance.
There also seems to be an anti-war sentiment buried within these ideas. A faint hint at a belief that violence simply begets more violence and that attempts to make war seem heroic only deadens the soul. Much is made of human interaction as the path back to normality for Hirst. His inability to give up violence as the answer could have a deeper symbolism. But perhaps I am reading into the story a bit on this one.
All of this is to say, that if you are looking for happy endings or neat conclusions Wignall is not the author for you. He offers neither the clean cut good guys versus bad guys plot of many action thrillers nor the flip side of that equation where the bad guy becomes the good guy by overthrowing the orthodox positions of those in power. (The CIA is evil story line of the most recent Bourne movie being one easy example.)
For Wignall life is messy and complex. And the opportunities for self-deception are many. His characters struggle for answers deep in their own conscience and have to live with the consequences. What emerges is a stoical individualism that faces despair not with faith but with a determination to succeed on its own terms.
What also emerges is that Wignall has the talent to take the ingredients of genre (action, violence, plot twists, etc.) and turn them into psychological and philosophical introspection. His tight prose and interesting plots insure that you can enjoy the genre aspect for its skill while thinking about the deeper issues involved below the surface. The later never intrudes on the former in a heavy handed way. Those issues just kind of hover in the background to be dealt with as the reader chooses to or not.
If good books are supposed to challenge, or make you uncomfortable, then Wignall qualifies for me. I am not sure I share his worldview, but I enjoy his writing.
As with his fellow Nomad, Olen Steinhauer, Wignall is a writer that deserves to be more widely read. Here’s hoping that Who is Conrad Hirst? introduces him to more mainstream readers. If it takes a Jason Bourne reference to accomplish that, I can live with it.
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