The set up for Kevin Wignall’s FOR THE DOGS is powerful. Ella Hatto is a college age woman on vacation in Italy, traveling with her boyfriend Chris. Unaware that her family has been murdered, Ella’s major concern is how the trip will impact their relationship.
We witness the killings from the point of view of seventeen year old Ben Hatto. Ben has anxieties of his own; a girl at school has caught his eye. He’s not sure if he’s cool enough for her. Ben’s house sits on grounds that buffer it from the neighbors; hedges and driveways delineate boundaries not meant to be crossed.
A stranger shoots Ben Hatto and his parents to death. The killer evinces no hostility, simply noting Pamela Hatto’s corpse on the kitchen floor as he leaves.
Stephen Lucas is a hit man. Lucas is introduced in dramatic fashion, gunning down a pair of assassins at a sidewalk cafe. Lucas takes charge of Ella and her recalcitrant boyfriend; they have to get out of Italy before Ella is killed.
Lucas has been shadowing her; the murders in England don’t become known until Lucas places a call to Ella’s father, only to be informed by a cousin that the family is dead. After Lucas foils another attempt on Ella’s life, the novel begins to turn introspective.
“Tourists were still walking about the piazza, but most of them were quiet, necks uncraned, as if in the cool darkness, they’d forgotten where they were. The cathedral looked at peace too, rising sheer above them. This was how Lucas liked cities.”
Mr. Wignall avoids the inevitable cathedral description, revealing something about Lucas instead. It’s a surprise and a nice one. Imagine the polka band dad hired for your wedding can’t make it and Elvis Costello shows up. That’s a good surprise. There are many such moments in this novel.
In Ella’s hotel room, she and Lucas share a tentative truce; he’s reading the ‘Nibelungenlied’ and she’s just finished Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion.’
Lucas confesses he hasn’t read Austen; epic poems aren’t Ella’s first choice. Their exchange comes in proximity to a scene where Ella, struck by the enormity of what’s happened, leaps from the bed to be sick in the bathroom. Lucas notes her nudity, feeling a pulse of desire. She returns bundled in her duvet and her moment of vulnerability becomes his.
Ella returns to England. She spends the summer with her uncle and his family. The police interview her. Her father’s business dealings were ‘complex.’
Mark Hatto was filthy rich, he dealt drugs and weapons, reinvesting the profits. Ella is wealthy and a target. Isolated, she turns to Lucas, the one person she trusts.
Lucas comes to England to help Ella track the men who killed her family; he’s had a disastrous meeting with the woman he loves. For Ella, the search becomes an initiation into a world where death is brokered like real estate.
FOR THE DOGS is a romantic novel. Ella’s had a glimpse into Lucas’ world; she wants in, he wants out. Over the balance of the novel it becomes Ella’s story, but the romantic is Lucas.
Kevin Wignall doesn’t blink. The narrative moves toward the climactic scenes with brutal assurance. The style is direct; you’ll want to brush up on your personal pronouns because the author uses them often. This is confusing at times, intriguing at others. Several chapters open with ‘he’ or ‘she’ and it takes some effort to discern the identity of the character. This isn’t a flaw, it’s a technique to heighten suspense.
The most interesting scenes are between Ella and Lucas. The bond they form becomes a catalyst; what they see in one another, or think they see, sets them in motion. Loss and desperation drive Ella; Lucas wants redemption.
Secondary characters are sketched. For example, Chris and the dapper Aussie, Dan, play their roles well, but the book belongs to Ella and Lucas.
FOR THE DOGS succeeds as a thriller, a character study, and a dark exploration of cause and effect. Hit men sip Chardonnay and marinate duck breasts for dinner; life is short. Read the book and you’ll see why.
FOR THE DOGS
SIMON & SCHUSTER