A Death in Sweden by Kevin Wignall

I have been a fan of Kevin Wignall since I read People Die in 2004.  I have read most of his work and interviewed him a couple of times.  He is not exactly a prolific author, so when I heard he had a new book coming out I was excited to check it out.  I actually got a chance to read A Death in Sweden a few weeks early thanks to the Kindle First program.  But alas, my poor book reviewing habits and the holiday’s intervened and I never posted my thoughts.

A Death in SwedenDan Hendricks is a man in need of a lifeline. A former CIA operative, he is now an agent for hire by foreign powers on the hunt for dangerous fugitives. It’s a lethal world at the best of times, and Dan knows his number is almost up. His next job could be his last—and his next job is his biggest yet.

The target sounds trackable enough: Jacques Fillon, who gave up his life trying to save a fellow passenger following a bus crash in northern Sweden. But the man was something of an enigma in this rural community, and his death exposes his greatest secret: Jacques Fillon never existed at all.

Dan is tasked with uncovering Fillon’s true identity—but can he do so before his own past catches up with him?

A Death in Sweden starts with a very memorable scene and the rest of the book seeks in some way to make sense of what happened in that scene; uncover the mystery behind it.  As Dan Hendricks seeks to put the pieces together he begins to attempt the same thing in his own life.  Who is he really?  What does he value and what future does he want for himself?

The problem is that he is caught in the middle of a secret but very real battle between powerful people.  Loyalties are murky, trust is hard to come by, and each decision seems to be one of life and death.

The thread that starts with that bus trip winds its way through Madrid, Paris, Sweden, Washington DC, the Middle East, Berlin, and back to Sweden.  Along the way, Hendricks has to stay alive, collect enough information and answers to perhaps buy himself time and/or a future, and solve the enigma that is Jacques Fillon.  The question is whether the former can help with the later and whether he can survive long enough to find out.

And just to complicate things, Wignall throws in a romantic interest.  So Hendricks has another set of emotions and thoughts to wrestle with and find answers to.

A Death in Sweden reads like a mix of genres: espionage, mystery and action thriller.  The mystery element is tied to the bus ride that kicks off the novel and the questions that underlay the identities of the two individuals who are the focus of that scene.

The espionage element comes in because the people and agencies involved in seeking to solve these mysteries are spies and governments.  Underneath it all is a battle for information and power with political, and life and death, consequences.

The action thriller aspect comes about as the battle moves from information to brute force.  Ultimately, Hendricks chooses violence as a partial solution to his dilemma.  Sometimes the violence is forced on him and sometimes he goes on the offensive.  The action elements don’t dominate the book necessarily but they come in intense bursts.

As noted above, however, weaved into all of this is also a romantic interest.  Which forces Hendricks to deal with questions that he was not prepared to wrestle with and choices he had not anticipated.  This leads to a contrast, maybe even an incongruity, between the cold and violent nature of Hendricks profession and actions and his relationship with Inger and his thoughts of a different future.

In fact, this is another thread that runs through the novel.  Is it possible to truly leave behind a life of secrecy and violence?  Can someone like Hendricks settle down and build a “normal” life?  The ending hints at no but also leaves it ambiguous.

Starting with that very first review of People Die I have wondered about Wignall’s almost amoral perspective.  His characters live and act in a world where traditional morality seems not to apply or must at least be set aside in some sense.

A Death in Sweden shares this perspective in some ways but also incorporates other perspectives.  Hendricks is pulled by the loyalty and dedication of a variety of characters he encounters; from Fillon and the friends/colleagues he is seeking to help survive to the families impacted by the history he is trying to uncover and decipher.  And his relationship with Inger also involves a pull toward commitment and normalcy.

I don’t want to accuse Wignall of aiming for mainstream fiction or coldly calculating the value of a romantic interest in a book like this, but it did change the feel of the novel for me.  Not bad, just different.

A Death in Sweden is a quick and entertaining read.  With a nice blend of tension, mystery, action and, yes, a little romance.  It isn’t really an action thriller and not your typical spy thriller either.  It felt to me more like a mystery with espionage and action elements.

If like me, you are facing the start of a cold and bleak winter, A Death in Sweden would make a good read for an afternoon bundled up on the couch with a hot beverage.

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).

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