To Vienna, with Love
In Kevin Wignall’s new thriller, Vienna takes the spotlight and steals the show
With a name like To Die in Vienna, Kevin Wignall’s new novel might give the impression of being one of those dark, death-obsessed literary discursions set here in the past. But despite the title, this lean thriller actually paints a kinder picture of our fair city. Originally called Welcome to Vienna – also the title of the film now in the works starring Jake Gyllenhaal – the story suggests the alluring possibilities that Vienna offers the disillusioned protagonist Freddie Makin, an independent American surveillance expert who inadvertantly becomes entangled in an espionage conspiracy.
“I love Vienna, it’s much more varied than people realize,” Wignall, who is British, said in an email interview. “I wanted to create the idea of it being a meeting point between past and future.” While working on a low-key surveillance assignment, Makin’s isolated existence is suddenly disrupted when he kills an intruder in self defense. Directly after, the innocuous Chinese IT professor he is shadowing disappears, making him a much hotter property than anticipated. Realizing he is the next target, Makin is forced out of seclusion. Still, he has no idea why. What ensues is a re-examination of the city where he has previously only been holed up in his surveillance station.
He takes refuge in “The Madhouse,” a thinly veiled alias for the 25hours Hotel near the Museumsquartier. This hipster magnet with a fantastic view over the city opens his eyes to Vienna’s beauty, as well as the world of the young artsy locals who work there. His investigation leads him through familiar locations like Café Griensteidl, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, a sex toy shop and the Westbahnhof, giving an authentic feel for the city’s many vibes, and a great game of recognition for a local.
While Wignall’s spy thriller delivers its requisite share of twists and turns, the real weight of the story lies in the decency and humility of its protagonist, who is propelled into his circumstance by having had to kill someone for the first time. Although Makin has a background in intelligence, a traumatic experience has led him to his current status. The result is a sympathetic character whose feelings of alienation and sense of conscience will resonate with many readers, leading his opponents to underestimate his abilities: “This isn’t a Bourne or Bond we’re dealing with here,” the leader says. “He’s a civilian!”
Perhaps this was the draw for Nine Stories, Gyllenhaal’s production company, who “loved the character of Freddie Makin,” according to Wignall. “They were equally drawn to the character of Vienna itself.” Although the book has its share of descriptive scenes, Wignall’s writing is best described as clean and sparse. As we piece together an event in Makin’s past that has brought on his present estrangement, he’s more propelled by an inherent benevolence and will to do right than he is by any kind of survival instinct. What we’re left with is not so much the existential struggle of an outsider, but more of a “nice guy” who just wants to fit in, who wants to de-efface himself and start over. In that sense, Vienna is indeed the other protagonist – and the one with whom he’s fallen in love.