Gregg Hurwitz’s new novel, “Orphan X,” so excited early readers that, well before publication, it had won a movie deal, a huge first printing, widespread foreign sales and high praise from some big guns of the thriller game. “A new thriller superstar is born,” Robert Crais said. “Read this book,” David Baldacci added. “You will thank me.”
That’s fine for Hurwitz, whose previous novels include “Don’t Look Back” and “The Crime Writer,” but, when such superlatives rain down, skeptical reviewers and frugal book buyers must ask if they are confronting hype or genuine achievement. Happily, in the case of “Orphan X,” the excitement is largely justified. The novel is not without flaws, but overall, in terms of plot, characters, suspense and innovation, it is outstanding.
A boy of 12 is removed from poverty in Baltimore and enrolled in a top-secret operation called the Orphan Program, wherein he and other promising youths are trained by the U.S. military to be killers. He is given the name Evan Smoak but officially he is Orphan X, the 24th recruit. The Orphans’ job, as adults, is to travel the world assassinating the government’s designated enemies. But abruptly, when the program is shut down, Evan is on his own, although he still has access to the money and weaponry the Orphan Program provided.
Being a decent sort, as assassins go, Evan becomes a freelance do-gooder. We first see him saving teenage girls in Los Angeles that a corrupt policeman has made his sex slaves. Evan solves this problem by shooting the cop dead, but not all his cases are so simple. He vows to help a desperate woman, only to suspect that she may be conspiring against him. Worse, Evan learns that he has been targeted by some of his former Orphan colleagues who equal his skills in the killing arts.
It is a strong story, one that allows for an abundance of conflict and suspense, but Hurwitz’s work is especially striking in the level of detail he lavishes on people, weapons, food, drink, sex, violence and just about everything else. I have always thought that one reason for Tom Clancy’s success was the endless detail he provided about military hardware, and that the James Bond novels benefited from the loving attention Ian Fleming devoted to the martinis, expensive cars and gorgeous women he so admired. Hurwitz outdoes both writers in intricate descriptions.
Evan does not just enjoy vodka; he savors “Kauffman Luxury Vintage vodka. Distilled fourteen times and filtered twice, once through birch coal, once through quartz, it was produced from the wheat of a single year’s harvest, making it one of the only vodkas released with a specific vintage, like wine or champagne.” He does not just own a knife but a “black-oxide blade. Heat-treated, S30V steel, titanium and G10 handle, tanto tip to punch through body armor. A Naval Special Warfare Model, Strider make.” Hurwitz adds such wonders as Evan’s “Maglev bed that literally floated two feet in the air” thanks to “preposterously strong rare-earth magnets” in his impregnable fortress overlooking Wilshire Boulevard.
Some of this is interesting, even fun, but the author’s enthusiasms can lead him astray.
After a sex scene, Evan reports that his partner’s shoulder blade was adorned with “a kanji symbol for passion, though the third horizontal stroke was too short.” Come on, nobody’s perfect! Hurwitz expertly choreographs several fight scenes but he puts Evan (and us) through one epic battle that lasts six pages. It is impressive writing — a talented writer showing off, really — but do we need so much about two guys pounding on each other?
To keep his hero alive, Hurwitz resorts to having him dodge bullets, an easier feat in fiction than in real life. Thus, “A bullet rifles by, close enough that he can feel the heat at the side of his neck.” And, for variety: “An honest-to-God stiletto flashed past, missing his upturned face by inches.” Of course, I may dwell on these annoyances because so much of the novel is such excellent entertainment.
It is tempting, when judging first-class genre fiction, to apply the standards of style and probability that we ask of literary fiction. But certain cliches — dodging bullets, say, or Hurwitz’s all-too-predictable boy-meets-girl subplot — are acceptable, if not expected, in even the finest genre fiction. (Western movies would not exist if white-hatted heroes could not dodge bullets.) At its best, “Orphan X” is a smart, stylish, state-of-the-art thriller. It is also the start of a series, one that might give Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books a run for their money.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By Gregg Hurwitz
Minotaur. 356 pp. $25.99