“Who the hell are you?” Hits, Lies and Identity Crises in the Thrillers of Kevin Wignall and Olen Steinhauer
Lee Horsley, Lancaster University
‘Who the hell are you?’ the pregnant woman finally managed…’What the hell are you?’ (Olen Steinhauer, The Tourist)
Frank tried a look of smug superiority…as he said, ‘Oh, I know who you are, but tell me, Conrad, are you absolutely sure you know who you are?’ (Kevin Wignall, Who Is Conrad Hirst?)
Kevin Wignall’s Who Is Conrad Hirst? (Simon and Schuster, 2007) and Olen Steinhauer’s The Tourist (HarperCollins, 2009) are compelling, high adrenaline post-Cold War espionage novels that give readers far more than standard genre fare. Both writers weave their dark narratives around the loss of loved ones, betrayals by friends, the dissolution of all confident knowledge and the wrenching away of any secure sense of self. Their protagonists struggle for retribution and redemption in a world gone horribly wrong. Wignall and Steinhauer are adept storytellers: “our first and only rule,” as Wignall says in interview, “is to remember that we’re telling a story.” Their writing is economical and unrelentingly fast-paced, but it is also psychologically nuanced, creating characters and relationships that are both disturbing and moving.
Global political conflicts intersect with intensely personal doubts and despairs. Milo Weaver, Steinhauer’s CIA “Tourist”, a burnt-out undercover agent, is caught between a bid for domestic normality and the machinations of post-9/11 intelligence networks that make inescapable demands on him. The novel offers a searching character study of his fractured identity, of alienation and the way the erosion of trust deforms all relationships. Steinhauer describes Wignall as creating “Terse, resonant novels which are weighted by philosophical issues while maintaining a large body count.” Stripped down and laconic, Who Is Conrad Hirst? is less reminiscent of the Le Carré and Deighton novels that have influenced Steinhauer. But although the focus is more single-minded, it connects strongly with the central themes of Steinhauer’s distinctive take on the spy genre. A ruthless contract killer, a pawn in a much larger game, Wignall’s protagonist, Conrad, conceives of a brutally simple way of ending his role as a hired killer. His plan to free himself by killing the four people who know about him founders, however, when he realizes how little he actually understands of the realities of his position, and how much at a loss he is when he tries to identify his masters, his adversaries or even – perhaps especially – his own goals.
As Conrad’s doubts and questions multiply, he becomes queasily aware of his life’s incomprehensibility: “The world had shifted so violently around him, it was hardly surprising that Conrad had begun to doubt himself.” The Tourist and Who Is Conrad Hirst? are post-Cold War novels – indeed, post 9/11 novels, though it is only in Steinhauer’s novel that this dimension of international politics really comes to the fore. The atmosphere is one of extreme disorientation: there has been, Conrad reflects, a “retreat from certainty”. In Steinhauer’s more detailed representation of contemporary espionage, we follow the often perplexing alliances and enmities of a 21st-century political landscape. The machinations of the world’s security services are increasingly chaotic, and national delusions thrive in a world in which there is no longer a clear-cut “other side”. America still mythologizes itself as a global empire and goes about its business of destabilizing other governments, but the “homeland” itself is unstable, riven by the conflicting interests and agendas of shadowy, paranoid, mutually destructive government offices. The main action of The Tourist is set seven years after the attacks on the Trade Center, and the ramifications are all too evident: “Since 9/11, we no longer have to go about [marking our territory] sweetly. We can bomb and maim and torture to our heart’s content, because only the terrorists are willing to stand up to us, and their opinion doesn’t matter.” As Wignall’s hitman reflects, the “fictional romance and glamor” of spying might once have had an appeal, but has no place in the contemporary world.
The plots of these novels revolve around the question of who controls the protagonists. Who has hired them, and who betrays them? As in any spy thriller, there are revelations about how events are manipulated at a global level. We care more, however, about other revelations – about the damage this world of secrets and lies inflicts on Conrad and Milo as human beings, tearing lives apart and undermining all firm sense of one’s own humanity. A man with multiple identities who has been involved in black ops through most of the 90s, Steinhauer’s Milo “float(s) unmoored from city to city.” However many different passports he carries, the identity that goes with his role seems inescapable: ‘“I’m not a Tourist anymore,” he protests, but the reply is, ”That’s like saying, I’m not a murderer anymore. You can change your name, change your job description – you can even become a bourgeois family man, Milo. But really, nothing changes.”’ And as the plot sweeps him back into his role as “a Tourist” he feels unbalanced, “no longer reacting like a real human being”.
Conrad feels similarly deprived of full humanity by his function within the organization that has exploited his deadly talents. Like Milo Weaver, he possesses multiple identities, but there is a more radical emphasis on his complete loss of a coherent self. He. He suffers from both lack of self-knowledge and lack of knowledge of the world that manipulates him, and feels that he would in fact prefer to work (as he initially believes he does) for a gangster rather than for the CIA – issues of “guilt and atonement” being “cleaner cut that way.” Unsure who actually employs him, he is in the dark as he pursues his objectives and confused about what those objectives actually are: an end to the injustices he feels he’s suffered, revenge, atonement, closure, freedom, a restoration of his damaged humanity? As these often inconsistent motives course through him, altering his decisions and his actions, what unfolds is a complex, introspective examination of the distorted psyche of a killer and of what it means to be human. The novel is, as Wignall says, a meditation on “how good people can do bad things”.
The iconic hitman can be conceived of as an “angel of death…a potent figure of modern myth…glamorous and powerful, but, more disturbingly, a figure of awe and wonder, beautiful and yet remote…a highly masculine fantasy of total self-sufficiency” (Andrew Spicer, in Crime Cultures: Figuring Criminality in Literature, Media and Film, Continuum, 2010). In what Steinhauer calls Wignall’s “hit-man noir”, this self-sufficient technical competence is a form of damnation. Conrad’s cold instrumentality is repeatedly manifest in the casualness with which his highly-tuned skill is deployed. Having one day found himself killing as casually as you’d turn off a light on leaving a room, he gradually realizes that he has turned into a monster without knowing it and without being able to express what he has become. Who Is Conrad Hirst? is an eloquent novel about inarticulacy: “I never put that loss into words, and all the horrors of the last decade, all the murders…all of it arose, in one way or another, from that failure.” His most acute need is to find a voice in which to analyse the atrophying of his humanity and to confront his own reduction to a killing mechanism. If he is to stand any chance of reconnecting with others or with his younger self, he must find a way of expressing the inexpressible.
The extreme difficulty of explaining yourself is compounded in both novels by the entrenched dishonesty of all political and professional explanations. The organizations that have recruited Milo Weaver and Conrad Hirst are so duplicitous and complex as to be impenetrable. It is a world of false narratives. The agility of both Wignall and Steinhauer as story-tellers enables us, as readers, to follow narratives woven around the deceptiveness of all stories: “Spying, and in particular Tourism, is all about storytelling. After a while you collect too many layers. It’s hard to discern story from truth…” To work as a Tourist is to be put in a position where a man’s whole life is a lie. It is much the same for Wignall’s Conrad: “in the background…a mantra-like echo of Frank’s voice – I lied, about everything.” In a world so untrustworthy, a man can only create his own meaning. As Steinhauer says in interview: “Meaning, I think, is central. My characters generally recognize the meaninglessness of life, but know that meaning is something you have to consciously create, or decide on.”
For Wignall and Steinhauer, meaning most clearly resides in a reclamation of community, human connections and relationships. The most dangerous attribute of all is the quality Spicer sees as conferring freedom on his iconic hitman: an “inviolable completeness” consequent on the absence of “any distracting ties, moral, emotional or social”. Conrad struggles with a narrative of inexplicable gaps – gaps in his knowledge, the absence or disappearance of the people he intends to kill. He himself is figured as a gap – a man whose chief talent, apart from killing, has been to make himself invisible, recruited because he is “a blank canvas”, a “void”. The truly devastating gap, though, is a loss of human connection – the loss of love. His disconnection from the human community had started early, with the loss of his parents. But at the core of Conrad’s story there is a single intolerable event, the death of Anneke, to whom he writes letters throughout the novel. There is a similar pattern in The Tourist. Milo, as well as a disintegrating family life of his own, has in effect been orphaned: he had a real mother he never told the Company about; and his biological father was “another secret”. Both men lie to cover over this familial death and separation, constructing false narratives of their pasts that are told so often they come to seem the truth. In this case, however, the lies aren’t part of a deadly game but a refusal to acknowledge the need for home and belonging. Wignall says in interview that “having your character not belong in any place for any length of time, for them to be comfortable everywhere but belong nowhere, that kind of sums up their existence.” The exploration of individual isolation is one of the great strengths of both novels. Their plots carry us through an action-filled world of spies and assassins, unraveling the secrets of contemporary espionage. The most intolerable trauma and despair, however, are generated not by international crimes and intrigues but by the loss of human community, love and connection.
Copyright © 2010 by Lee Horsley