Note: this has been edited. I hit publish a little too quickly and wanted to add a little more background and context.
I have been a fan of Kevin Wignall for some time (I think my first review was over 13 years ago). And you would think I would not be disturbed by his approach at this point (I mention it in every review). But I seem to have been tripped up once more by his latest work, A Fragile Thing.
It is basically the story of Max Emerson, the son of a wealthy expat family living in Europe parents in Switzerland, sister in Lyon, etc.). But Max’s growing fortune comes from investing, and laundering, the money of international criminals and oligarchs. Despite his wealth, there are clouds on the horizon. His family has ostracized him, the FBI is looking into his past, and hackers are poking around his business. Soon it seems like the secrets of his past, and as his parents secrets are revealed, are going to upend and unravel his life.
I finished reading it in June and posted this at Goodreads at the time as an initial response/reaction:
Hmm, not sure how I feel about this one. Some interesting elements and characters but left me kind of confused at the end. Almost felt like book one in a series where the characters are introduced but there is a lot left to flush out. Ending felt abrupt. Still mulling it.
When I realized it was released today and I needed to post my thoughts, I went back to the book and tried to wrestle with my ambiguity. I enjoyed reading it but something just didn’t settle right; I was unsatisfied in some way. After thinking about it, I think I didn’t like the book as much as I normally do Wignall’s writing for two reasons:
- It bugged me that the main character was a man comfortable using mobsters and other unsavory characters (something of an understatement) to gain fabulous wealth. And was comfortable having people killed and killing people himself. He seems cold, cut off and rather arrogant. I just really didn’t like him.
- The book read almost as a series of vignettes that ended somewhat abruptly with a number of loose ends tied up. My first reaction to the book being finished was huh? It left me unsatisfied.
The second point could be more related to my reading it in fits and starts on my Kindle before bed. I might have struggled to get into it because I was reading for only a few minutes at a time but then it seemed like just when I got into it and the action picked up it was over.
The first issue, however, is just something you have to deal with when you read Wignall. As I noted in my review of Who is Conrad Hirst?:
If there is something that makes me uncomfortable about Wignall’s work it has always been what I take to be his moral ambiguity. Wignall doesn’t reflect a moral equivalence like some Cold War spy novelists – the idea that America and the Soviets were equally power hunger and willing to kill for their cause – so much as an absence of clear right or wrong. Each individual has to define what is right and wrong for themselves. The individualism/relativism is strong but it sometimes feels darker; there is almost a touch of nihilism involved.
Does moving that approach from hit men to wealthy investor/businessman make it worse somehow? I don’t know, but I think that underlying perspective still rubs me the wrong way.
All that said, I did enjoy reading A Fragile Thing. I thought the plot hook was interesting and kicked the book off with a sense of tension and mystery. And there is some deft character building and plotting throughout. Max and his employees and contacts; his relationship with his family and the backstory of his parents; and his self-exploration about his lack of relationships and friends outside his business are well done and interesting in many ways.
There is a building suspense as the pressure mounts and the secrets are revealed. The reader is thinking: “How is Max going to deal with the multiple thread in his life that seem to be coming undone?” And Wignall answers this question with some twists and turns.
But I have to say, I just didn’t like Max Emerson and in some way probably wanted him to fail. But as I like to say, your mileage may vary … ;-)