I have always found the well named Kevin Wignall a fascinating author. He is one of the authors I have had the privilege of interacting with on the web and that has only furthered my interest in his writing (for previous reviews see here and here). With that in mind I figured I should read all of his books. So I went and tracked down a copy of Among the Dead; a book that wasn’t released in the US. Looking for something different to read in 2007 I pulled it off the shelf.
The story opens with the aftermath of a tragic accident. A close knit group of college students are returning home after a night of drinking when a young women appears out of nowhere and is struck by their car. Finding her dead they panic and decide to flee rather than call the police. (I know what you’re thinking. Wasn’t this a movie? Don’t worry, it’s different. In the words of the author: “no fishermen, no horror, no Jennifer Love Hewitt (sadly).”)
After setting the scene, and the personalities involved, the story then jumps ahead ten years and focuses on Alex Stratton. Stratton it turns out is a successful psychologist – an expert in the field of disturbed sleep. It seems Stratton has been unable to put the past behind him. His life is slowly falling apart. He can’t seem to escape the guilt and it has poisoned his relationships.
To add another twist, Stratton finds out that one of the group has died in mysterious circumstances. When another member of the group dies just after reconnecting with Stratton, all sorts of paranoid scenarios begin to enter his mind. Stratton is soon forced to track down the remaining members of this once close group of friends to try and get to the bottom of these deaths. At the same time he is trying to reassert control of his own fragile psyche and life.
At first blush, I was surprised by the completely different style and tone. People Die and For the Dogs seemed to have a dark yet cool literary style; slim and sharp re-imaginings of the hit-man thriller. Among the Dead doesn’t have the in your face violence or the ruthlessly efficient lead character. Instead it is atmospheric and creepy; haunted like its lead character. Instead of an icy hard, at least on the exterior, hit-man who is trying to make sense of his emotional life in light of his extreme occupation, we have a psychologist who seems to be losing his grip on reality; whose occupation is directly related to his emotional and mental state.
After further thought, however, I began to see some similarities. As in his other works, Wignall is (as I said of For the Dogs) “probing the emotional and moral bounds by looking at the edge of society; at the extreme end of the choices we make.” In a moment of panic a group of friends made a choice that changed the course of their lives in tragic ways. Wignall is in a sense once again playing psychologist with his characters. He pushes them to extremes and then sees how they react.
The other similarity is Wignall’s refusal to offer easy resolutions and his tendency to keep the reader off guard. Just when you think you have a handle on a character, or the plot, things change. Wignall doesn’t want the reader to get too comfortable; to think he knows everything. Instead, he wants to make you think about the interesting scenarios and circumstances the characters find themselves in; to get outside the pat answers and too easy solutions.
In the case of Stratton, the issues are guilt, friendship, loyalty, and the power of the mind to create its own reality. Among the Dead deals with the emotional time bomb the accident set off and how each character dealt with the destruction that followed in its wake. As Stratton tries to put his life together he comes to realize that he has built a prison in his mind that is not easy to escape from. After years of isolation and emotional withdrawal it isn’t easy to judge reality from illusion; prudent worry from paranoia. Wignall skillfully puts the reader inside Stratton’s mind and captures the powerful emotions involved.
Among the Dead is in many ways a disturbing book. Its portrayal of guilt slowly eating away at a person’s mind and soul is haunting and creepy. The feeling of almost helpless melancholy that pervades the book can be depressing. It doesn’t have the pace and zip of Wignall’s previous works that pointed more toward the thriller genre. Instead, it has the feel of a psychological mystery with a hint of danger always in the foreground but never really coming into focus until the end. And Wignall keeps you guessing even at the end.
That said, I found Among the Dead to be an enjoyable read. As usual, Wignall has taken a dark yet intriguing subject and used it to get inside the head of a compelling character and to explore the complexity of human emotion. It is a haunting, mysterious, and unsettling tale but an entertaining one.