Wignall, Kevin - 'Who Is Conrad Hirst?'
At first sight an unwieldy title, WHO IS CONRAD HIRST? becomes an ever more poignant question the deeper you delve into Kevin Wignall's fourth novel. Wignall quickly and skilfully establishes what Hirst is: a contract killer and a very good one as a result of his dehumanising experiences as photographer-turned-mercenary in the former Yugoslavia. But the story opens in the aftermath of what should have been the routine killing of an old man who was once something of a minor power broker during the Cold War, with Hirst visiting his handler having already decided - for reasons that only become apparent much later in the story - that his exit strategy from the life he has lived for the last decade will be the relatively simple killing of the four men who have been benefiting from his perverse talents.
It's an intriguing set-up, but almost immediately Wignall tosses in a curve-ball: were he and Hirst to pursue that line, the story would become an uncovering of what Hirst is, not who he is. It's this element, the philosophical self-questioning Hirst subjects himself to as he criss-crosses Europe pursued by various shadowy agencies, that lends the lie to the intriguing but misleading 'Jason Bourne' references on the cover. Even as Hirst ruthlessly eliminates those who stand in his way, and with a cold-blooded suddenness that can cause the book to jump in your hands, Wignall takes aim at the heart of the human condition, peeling back the layers of paranoia, suspicion and mistrust that characterise - if we're fully honest - our relationship with our darkest selves until the messy, inconvenient truth of who Hirst is finally laid bare. A hugely satisfying blend of tragic love story, adrenaline-charged thriller and philosophical tract, and one that (appropriately enough) raises as many questions as it answers, this novel is as subtly devastating as an assassin in the night.
Declan Burke, Ireland