Saturday, September 15, 2007

WHO IS CONRAD HIRST? by Kevin Wignall

Simon and Schuster US, November 2007, ISBN 9781416540724

It’s a pity Wignall isn’t better known in the UK. His third novel, Among the Dead was an economical, highly effective psychological thriller concerning three friends who accidentally kill a girl at university and end up paying the price years later. While we haven’t his read his other novels at Crime Scene Scotland, his latest, Who Is Conrad Hirst?, confirms that this wasn’t just a fluke.

Comparisons to the Bourne series are inevitable in this tale of a hitman who discovers that nothing he knows is necessarily true, but Hirst is less about oblique, barnstorming action, concerning itself more with the psychological journey that shakes its protagonist’s world. The espionage backdrop is convincingly rendered, as Hirst discovers that his crime-lord masters may be more influential than he ever realised. The massive info-dump that often plagues such novels (including – and especially in – the Bourne books) is neatly sidestepped in a story that gives us all the information we need without delving into dull and complex expository sequences. We, as an audience, are treated as being intelligent enough to figure just how much of Hirst’s story is true and how much he really isn’t telling us.

Wignall’s prose is clear and crisp, the third person narrative keeping us distant enough from the character to keep his mystery, but close enough to empathise with him as he sets out to leave the life that has defined him for so long. All it takes is one specific hit to make Hirst desperate to leave this life that he fell into following a period in a war zone. And the reason that hit affects him so much always seems just within reach, but only becomes clear as Wignall effectively blindsides the reader with an affectingly human moment. Enough to bring a small shudder of emotion even to this jaded reviewer. To say much more would be to ruin a brilliantly designed and executed moment, but when it comes, you can’t miss it.

It’s this human dimension that makes the novel work so well. Like all the best hitmen, Hirst is distanced from his targets, but there’s a gradual thawing of his character that makes him seem utterly human. He never becomes mushy, but the slow revelation of the humanity that exists side by side with his professional existence creates an impressively empathetic protagonist.

Unusually for an espionage piece, there is little in the way of explosive set pieces, but the novel uses its backdrop as a way of further exploring its character and psychological dynamics, which become more intriguing than a variety of explosions and deaths. Thankfully, though, when Hirst is “on the job” he is utterly believable. There is a cold clinical aspect to the way he goes about his work. The only way out of the life of a professional killer, after all, is for Hirst to kill those people who have direct contact with him. These set pieces – including the one that opens the novel – are compelling and convincing: up-close, personal and chilling. Exactly as they should be.

Who Killed Conrad Hirst? is a sharp, compelling novel about identity, guilt and loss. It deals with its themes in an intensely human fashion, with a central mystery that neatly encapsulates its protagonist. Hirst is as much of a mystery to himself as he is to us, and the slow unravelling of the web of lies that surrounds him – perpetuated, it seems, not only by his employers, but by himself – provide a personal kind of intrigue that goes right for the heart. It’s a perfect antidote to the world-at-stake, Bondian image of the spy/mercenary that pop culture often uses for shorthand.

An unexpected and excellent novel from an author who deserves more recognition not just within the genre, but outside of it as well.

Russel McLean for Crime Scene Scotland 15/09/07
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