Who Is Conrad Hirst?

Who Is Conrad Hirst?

by Kevin Wignall

Published by Simon & Schuster

240 pages, 2007






Wrong Gun for Hire

Reviewed by David Thayer

Who Is Conrad Hirst? is the third Kevin Wignall novel released in the United States, following People Die and For the Dogs, two books I enjoyed and admired for their stark directness and elegant storytelling. Now that I’ve confessed to being a Kevin Wignall fan, and I am, we come to the question of the latest novel and its somewhat vexing structure.

Who Is Conrad Hirst? tells the back-story of the hired assassin from the earlier books. Letters to Anneke, a dead girlfriend, frame Conrad’s bleak present along with the genesis of his career, an ill-fated decision to fight in the Balkans during the disintegration of Yugoslavia. His first letter to Anneke talks about the progression from the innocent past to the here and now:

Think of that person, the English boy who wanted to be a photographer -- he was kind, wasn’t he, and gentle, and funny? Do you remember him? Then you should hate him, because for the last nine years that same person has been a professional killer, working for a German crime boss, killing people for money he didn’t need, remorseless, empty of any kindness at all.

The killing of Hans Klemperer, the old man Conrad alludes to later in this letter, sets Conrad to thinking about quitting his life as a contract killer. He decides to retire from the assassination business and from the employ of Julius Eberhardt, the German crime boss Conrad has met just once, nearly 10 years earlier.

Conrad makes a list of the people who stand in the way of his plans. Four men, all of them complicit in the killing for hire, contractors and subcontractors in the architecture of death. Only four men who know his identity -- he must do away with them all. He reasons that his one-man blitz on Eberhardt’s organization will set him on a new course and restore meaning to his life. This is the quest that’s so central to this novel: Conrad’s relentless effort to experience his own humanity.

After killing the first member of the aforementioned quartet, Conrad awakens on a snowy morning to remember skiing as a boy.

It was one more reason why he had to succeed with this. He was too young for so many things to be locked away in the past like forgotten keepsakes. Eberhardt was probably just a few miles away and he’d woken to the same beautiful morning, almost certainly untroubled, because there were people like Conrad to absorb trouble for him. It was an injustice he couldn’t tolerate anymore -- the cost was too high.

This is the novel’s manifesto, the moment Kevin Wignall puts his cards on the table, where the story hangs in the balance. The author -- Belgian-born and now a British resident -- deserves full credit for doing this. But the troubling word in that last paragraph is “injustice,” not because the idea is inappropriate but because Conrad, the efficient killing machine, remains indifferent to the lives he destroys and those he spares. Justice is not in Conrad’s repertoire; he lacks the emotional range to know it when he sees it.

We follow Conrad as he continues to, well, execute his plans, all the while accepting his belief that one more kill will set him free of his current, onerous occupation. But his understanding of who he’s working for and who he can trust are flawed. After a confrontation with agents of his real employer, the CIA, Conrad considers the quality of mercy in this excerpt:

He sat in the window with a coffee and waited. He’d done a good thing in sparing Harrison -- if he had spared him -- a first faltering step back to what he imagined was normality. But he was eager to see who turned up here now, and as much as he was trying to set a fairer course for his life, he knew that Harrison would have to be the last person he spared today.

The novel contains a major plot twist that comes at the end of its main story, a twist I’m not going to reveal. That turn is vintage Wignall, a moment when he kicks the ladder out from under the construct of his protagonist’s fragile belief system and turns assumptions into weapons, the means to the wrong end.

For all of the story’s violence, this novel has a meditative quality and makes a serious effort to explore the injured psyche of a dangerous man. Beneath the minimalist style and curt descriptions there is a romantic belief that the search for meaning will restore Conrad to a community of people on whom he had turned his back.

Wignall hangs a lot of weighty ideas on the slender bough of his plot. Conrad’s single-mindedness in his pursuit of freedom is both naïve and primitive, two conditions the protagonist is well aware of. After witnessing the complexity of his encounters with both his CIA handlers and a smart, seductive and mysterious French woman, the level of mayhem in these pages comes across as at odds with Conrad’s refined ability to analyze his failings as a human being, even while repeating the behavior that inevitably leads to his self-loathing. There are times when the authorial voice supersedes his character’s, like a 19th-century Russian novel in which the writer speaks directly to the reader. This excerpt from the novel’s epilogue is told in flashback:

There was something indecent about killing an old man. Conrad thought about that as he waited for the old man to answer the door. Surely killing someone at the end of his life, when there were fewer years being stolen, should have been less objectionable than killing a man in his youth. Yet he imagined society judged it the other way.

Of course the implication is that while Conrad struggles with this dilemma, we know that society isn’t happy about killing people at any stage of their life -- young, old or in between. That scene illustrates Conrad’s existence outside societal norms. Not all readers are pleased to become entangled with the ebb and flow of moral judgments, but when you read Kevin Wignall that is what he demands of you.

St. Paul wrote that we see our lives through a mirror darkly. Through the course of this novel, no one’s vision of himself or herself is darker than assassin Conrad’s; despite his reflexive instinct to kill his way out of the gloom, his thoughts are in conflict with his deeds. In a thriller devoted to introspection, the reader can expect a certain amount of behavior that thwarts the protagonist’s plans -- there’s no destruction like self-destruction, but our man Conrad elevates that game to the level of art. Who Is Conrad Hirst? becomes a question with no answer, but at least he asked it. | November 2007


David Thayer is a Seattle freelance writer and author of the blog One More Bite of the Apple. He’s also a published poet, his work having appeared in an anthology as well as literary magazines. Thayer has recently completed a crime novel, the beginning of a series about cops in the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division.