Shoot first. Ask lots of questions
Tightly written Hirst is one of the season's best thrillers
British author Kevin Wignall has quietly been building a reputation as a writer of intelligent thrillers about assassins over the past five years. Although well-known in the crime community, he hasn't achieved much prominence with the general reading public yet. Hopefully that will begin to change when his fourth novel, Who Is Conrad Hirst?, hits store shelves, as it's a smart and suspenseful read, and one of the season's best books.
Conrad Hirst is a British hit man living in Luxembourg and working for a German crime boss. Although he's only 32, he wants to retire. After a decade of an empty, nihilistic lifestyle, he's had an epiphany -- though we don't really understand what it is until the end -- and decides to make a change. He wants to leave behind the business of death and make a go at living again.
As Hirst reckons, only four people know who he is and what he does. If he can eliminate those four, he'll be free to go about his business. Naturally, things go wrong almost immediately, starting with the removal of the first man, his controller in the crime syndicate.
Hirst dispatches his target with alacrity, but as the man lay dying, he confesses to Hirst that he lied to him about everything. Hirst has no idea what this means, but it doesn't bode well, especially when the next two targets on his hit list suddenly disappear.
The mystery about Hirst's life is confirmed when he tracks down his final target, the German mobster he supposedly works for. As Hirst lays eyes on him, however, he realizes that he has never seen the man before -- despite that Hirst had a meeting with him a decade before, when he was first hired for the job.
That discovery throws Hirst into even greater chaos, desperately searching for his actual employer and the truth behind his actions of the past 10 years. Along the way, we learn about how Hirst, once a promising young photographer, descended into the madness of life as a paid killer.
Wignall does a masterful job building the character of Hirst. His creation of this empty, anonymous man who goes around killing people because he is already dead inside is both powerful and poignant. Hirst is an anti-James Bond; plain and decidedly unglamorous.
Wignall writes with both beauty and economy of language. Who is Conrad Hirst? is a short book, especially for a thriller, but it packs a considerable emotional wallop. It probably makes even more of an impact due to its lean, mean nature, as none of the story is padded out as so often happens these days.
Although it's being marketed as a Bourne-like thriller, Who is Conrad Hirst? owes more to John le Carre than to Robert Ludlum. It is a psychologically charged, intense and introspective thriller. It may not get the adrenaline pumping like Bourne, but it dazzles the intellect with plenty of panache.
From the Chicago Sun-Times, December 2, 2007