Saturday, February 25, 2017

People Pulls a Bit of a Bait and Switch

Can I be forgiven for initially assuming that Kevin Wignall’s People Die is a crime novel? His debut ticks off all of the appropriate boxes on the genre checklist. A sympathetic hitman under the gun from former allies? A Byzantine plot he has to unravel in order to survive? Gunplay and fisticuffs that suitably swell the double-digit body count? Yes, yes, and yes—but there the similarities end. Rather than focus on high-octane action, Wignall has chosen an entirely different emphasis: internal monologues preoccupied with subjective musings and big existential questions.

JJ has a reputation as a non-partisan contractor, a service provider free of ideological hang ups, a guy who gets the job done in as clean a manner as possible. It just so happens that his chosen profession involves killing people, murdering anyone for money anywhere—but not anyhow. JJ doesn’t go in for torture. He won’t off a target with a baseball bat or brick. “Overkill” isn’t in his dictionary. A couple of pistol shots neat and clean as you please, and JJ’s out of there. That was what happened in Moscow when JJ executed his latest mark, a family man named Bostridge. JJ doesn’t know why the guy has to die. The agency doesn’t pay him enough for that. Nor does the size of his retainer allow him the luxury of wondering why there was a girl in the room. A girl who wasn’t his wife. A girl who took a wrapped package from the room after the hit. JJ doesn’t worry about it until a few days later when his handler shows up dead. Then former colleagues start to drop like the proverbial flies. Someone is killing everyone around JJ, and the Moscow job might very well have something to do with it.

The setup for People Die sounds like something straight out of the thriller writer’s handbook, doesn’t it? That’s why it surprised me so much when Wignall immediately steered the proceedings away from the bang-bang-die stuff and into JJ’s mental machinations. And by immediately, I mean immediately. No sooner is Bostridge bleeding out onto the floor (a scant five paragraphs in) then readers find themselves plunged into his thoughts about the isolating power of sudden tragedy, the cultural cluelessness of Westerners, and the fragile beauty of the young whore. Such shifts shock in more ways than one. Not only are they unexpected for the genre, they’re linked with a substantial stylistic disconnect. The action reads like Hemingway. Short and sharp bursts. Almost business-like action. But everything after that tumbles out in lengthy, unhurried prose, dependent clauses unspooling one after another, some landing, in a development that you might find odd, smack in the middle of others. Interestingly, Wignall seems to prefer the literary stuff to crime content, a valid enough compositional and thematic choice that nonetheless feels off in a book with a big old hollowpoint bullet emblazoned on the cover. So does the main thematic thrust that JJ’s emotionless murders may somehow tilt the cosmic scales for good. I have no problem with crime fiction getting existential or diving deep into another genre’s territory. But it’s hard to feel as though People hasn’t pulled a bit of a bait and switch.

(Picture: CC 2008 by mr.smashy)

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