The Names of the Dead by Kevin Wignall

I am a long time reader of Kevin Wignall going back to 2004 and People Die.  Over the years he has explored a number of genres and categories and I have enjoyed them to varying degrees.  His most recent novel, The Names of the Dead, was released today and it felt like a return to “classic” Wignall to me.

Publishers description:

The Names of the Dead coverFormer CIA officer James ‘Wes’ Wesley paid the ultimate price for his patriotism when he was locked up in a French jail for an anti-terror operation gone wrong—abandoned by the Agency he served, shunned by his colleagues and friends, cut off from his family.

Now he is shattered by the news that his ex-wife, Rachel, a State Department analyst, has been killed in a terrorist attack in Spain. He also discovers that his young son, Ethan, is missing. But Wes didn’t know he had a son—until now.

Why was Rachel in Spain? And why did she keep his son secret from him?

Granted early release, Wes takes flight across Europe to search for the truth and exact his revenge. But can he catch the spies who betrayed him before they track him down? In order to find the answers and save his son, Wes realises he must confront the dark secrets in his own past—before it’s too late.

I was lucky enough to receive a review copy from NetGalley and found myself right back in the world and characters and situations of moral ambiguity, tension and violence.

Here is an exchange in a quick Q&A I did with Kevin in 2008:

I wrote that Conrad Hirst, as most of your books, was an exploration of identity, the nature of morality, and the dangers of self-deception. Is that fair? Accurate?

Yes to both. I’m interested in the fault lines between who we think we are and how others see us. And one of the inherent premises of all my work is that we live in a time of fluid morality, a time in which people are drawing their own boundaries, so I think it’s interesting to explore how people deal with that process, particularly people on the edges of society.

Well, “an exploration of identity, the nature of morality, and the dangers of self-deception” is a pretty good description of The Names of the Dead.  As with most Wignall novels there are a couple of threads.

One is the basic plot.  In this case it is Wes trying to stay alive, unravel the mystery of his wife and son, and bring closure somehow.  The other deals with the aforementioned issues of identity, morality, and self-deception. In this case, Wignall, via what feels like a unreliable narrator, leaves the reader constantly guessing whose perspective is “real” or accurate.  There is just enough doubt in Wes’s perspective about the activities that led to his imprisonment and his relationship with his colleagues that you are never quite sure if he is deceiving himself or if he really is a basically good guy caught up in the ugly but necessary work of anti-terrorism.  Wes’s traveling companion Mia, and closest friend in prison Patrice, and to this ambiguity and surrealism.

The question that lingers, and one that is very relevant for today, is whether people trained to excel in war and counter-terrorism are “monsters” or just have the necessary detachment and compartmentalization.  But also rolled up in that are questions about relationships, family, motherhood, faith, friendship, etc.

If you enjoy your thriller with a literary sensibility, Wignall is a great choice and The Names of the Dead is classic Wignall.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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