Reviewed in the United States on December 2, 2019
ORPHAN X By Gregg Hurwitz
My Review Five Stars*****
I read the last line of this book Friday night (November 8th) and rejoiced in the fact that after wanting to read this novel for nearly 4 years now (since it was published in January 2016), my figuratively stumbling across a temporary sale price on Amazon for this first installment of the ORPHAN X series made it possible. My county wide library system hadn't offered this book for rental (or any other listings for Hurwitz). I do recall that the library emailed me on one occasion to let me know they had purchased a short story by Hurwitz that was available but nothing more.
I can fully understand why that ORPHAN X became an international bestseller. Frankly the book exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds. I loved it! Obviously I knew right away that I was going to grudgingly take a hammer to my piggy bank to buy the remainder of the series! Fortunately, however, the library is now on board with ORPHAN X and the ensuing spellbinding sequels from thriller writer extraordinaire Hurwitz.
One reviewer announced that Smoak "deserves to stand in that unique pantheon of iconic heroes: Bond, Bourne, and Batman." But I really loved the commentary courtesy of Richard and Judy Book Club Pick ("Put Jack Reacher and Jason Bourne into a blender. Add one drop of nitro-glycerin and three of sulphuric acid. Switch on, and don’t be surprised if the lid blows off. You’ve just mixed your first Orphan X."
The inaugural voyage of Evan Smoak was lavishly praised by a host of my favorite writers including Lee Child, Lisa Gardner, David Baldacci, Jonathan Kellerman, Tess Gerritsen, and even one of my go-to names from the legal thriller genre Phillip Margolin. Readers and reviewers alike rejoiced in favorable comparisons of Smoak to heroes of today to those of yesteryear with equal fervor.
Evan Smoak is fundamentally different from any of the anti-heroes who proceeded him in the annals of fiction. He is essentially all alone, quietly stalking the streets of the city wearing his mask of normalcy, basically a chameleon of sorts "hiding in plain sight" because of his outward "ordinary guy" physical appearance. He cooks, dines, meditates, and exercises all alone in his self-designed fortress of solitude in a high rise building overlooking the city.
We learn at the age of 12, he was enrolled in a top-secret operation known as the "Orphan Program" The goal of the program is to train orphans so they can be assassins for government agencies. Evan is ostensibly the 24th recruit in the program, and then much later on the aforementioned program is shut down. Evan has welcomed this acceptance by a mysterious stranger to be taken to an unknown destination. This is wholly significant because the homeless boy is willing to accept any outcome from his decision, and he speculates (to himself) during the drive with his will-be "handler" Jack that it could be anything, i.e., human trafficking, sexual exploitation, or even a terrible death of some kind awaiting him.
The boy is mentored by Jack, his only connection to human society as we know it. He is meanwhile educated, and tutored in all of the techniques that he will one day require when it is finally time to leave the sanctuary of the structured government program. The goal is to mold the boy into an invincible killer who will walk and talk among society while remaining essentially invisible. Orphan X is taught by masters in numerous disciplines ranging from physical combat, including the most lethal components from countless martial art disciplines around the globe, to wielding a knife and other blades to using all kinds of firearms. He excels as a sniper, but the goal of the program is for Orphan X to learn from all of his teachers, not to strive to be a master any specific discipline in his itinerary of studies.
Ultimately, when in his 30's Smoak begins using his acquired skills to fight corruption in the form of vigilante justice, but strategically maintains access to the program's funding and weapons. He is known as "The Nowhere Man" and most people in the streets believe his existence to be an urban myth. A person finds him by calling a unique unpublished phone number. For each person he helps, he tells them to pay it forward by giving someone in need of help his phone number. The "heart" of the difference between Smoak and all of the iconic heroes past and present, regardless of the unmistakable similarities, is that Smoak has no "past" aside from his "Handler" Jack (who Evan saw murdered in front of him). He does not exhibit any ability to "connect" with any other human being, and his character is both constrained and sympathetic because of this emotional void. He lives in isolation from the real world and is devoid of any real connections.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed taking a long walk down memory lane and thinking about the iconic heroes of fiction who have drawn comparisons to Hurwitz's unique anti-hero named Smoak AKA Orphan X. I have to laugh when I recall reading all of Ian Fleming's James Bond thrillers in my pre-teens. I couldn't get enough of the adventures of the indefatigable and unbeatable 007. I remember my father finding me with a full color photo of Sean Connery reclining in a lounge chair wearing only a skimpy pair of swim trunks and tons of chest hair. My dad went ballistic. He just didn't think it was an appropriate picture for his 12-year old daughter (I might have been younger) to be packing around.
So how would one in present day compare the colorful champion of the underdog Evan Smoak with the legendary "Bond, James Bond" (who can forget that iconic quote?). He was the main character for a dozen books that were written and published by Ian Fleming between 1953 and 1966. It's easy to forget that Fleming was in fact a British naval officer who worked with British Intelligence during World War II. His series of a dozen "spy" novels were drawn from parts of his real life and his own knowledge about military intelligence and espionage. His books were tense and exciting but they were also, as one commentator put it "effortlessly stylish" as well. If one looks at the literary depiction of James Bond 007 we see a flawed, but lethal human scalpel that the British Secret Intelligence Service ("M16") deployed when they encountered a particularly sticky problem. He was the weapon (a stone cold killer) but it was his country who aimed the gun. There are few strong similarities between Bond and Smoak, aside from the fact that Smoak has an impressive array of state of the art gadgetry available to him (as did Bond). Nevertheless, Bond's influence is certainly seen in other novels about spies and espionage that followed, notably the "other" J.B. to be compared to our reclusive avenger, namely the one and only Jason Bourne.
The trilogy of novels written by Robert Ludlum featuring the iconic Jason Bourne character were published between 1980 and 1990. I loved Ludlum's writing in general, and his Jason Bourne series in particular. In fact, The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum were among the first titles that I purchased to be re-read on my new Kindle Paperwhite I purchased in 2014. I reread the Bourne Trilogy in 2015 and loved it as much as I remembered. Some critics consider The Bourne Identity to be among the best spy novels of all time, perhaps second only to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carre.
Having said that, it isn't difficult to see that both Orphan X (Smoak) have the same intensity, lethality, remarkable adaptability to adverse and life-threatening situations, intelligence, and competence, but there are fundamental differences that set the two characters apart. Forget the Hollywood version of Bourne. David Webb (AKA Bourne) had been a career Force Reconnaissance Marine Captain and a specialist in Far Eastern Affairs. His entire world as he knew it crumbled around his feet when his beloved wife and both of his children were killed in an air strike. This event created a very different David Webb, one who went to Saigon and trained for an elite special forces unit named Medusa. He became Delta One and later led this lethal assassination team or death squad with ruthlessness and an incredible success rate, in many cases disobeying orders and performing acts that might be thought of as suicidal.
As a matter of interest he executed a traitor while in this deadly unit and it was in this manner that David Webb adopted the alias Jason Bourne. He used the name years later when he was recruited for Treadstone. Thus we can hardly compare an academic who had a past and a happy life until it is destroyed in Asia, prompting Webb to embark upon what very well may be called suicide missions behind the lines of the lethal Vietcong. He is tethered to the United States Government, albeit deeply and in what could reasonably be termed black ops. It is only when there is an accident to occur in the theater that causes Bourne to suffer retrograde amnesia which leads to a number of confusing maneuvers that cause his contacts to believe he has gone rogue. This takes us to the primary reason that I fail to see a stronger comparison between Smoak and Bourne, namely motivation. Vigilante justice delivered for forlorn souls who truly deserve it is a far cry from Bourne's motivation in the debut novel to stay alive, clear his name, and to hold any appropriate parties accountable. In Book 2, Jason is deceived, blackmailed, and must walk a tight tope to save the life of the woman he loves and to even the score. Then in the final installment of the original Ludlum authored trilogy, it is the indomitable Jason Bourne against the evil, elusive Carlos The Jackal. All three books were incredible and worth re-reading and remembering the thrills.
Editorials praising Orphan X have even brought Batman into the mix, and as an only child who "grew up" on DC comic heroes I can easily see the points of comparison. We aren't told that Smoak possesses a genius level intellect but I wouldn't rule that out after reading the introductory novel. Genius or not, Smoak is a peerless martial artist like Bruce Wayne AKA The Dark Knight, and no one would doubt his peak human physical conditioning. Similarly his access to vast wealth (like Wayne) affords him the ability to acquire an imposing if not extraordinary arsenal of state of the art weapons and protective equipment. I would think of The Caped Crusader matching wits with his assorted enemy villains in the DC comic universe and frankly more of a vigilante for the entire city of Gotham. However, there is no denying the traits the two heroes have in common.
Orphan X arguably might have more in common with Jack Reacher, a nomadic loner who wanders the USA, his destinations often based upon curiosity about a place or person of interest. Reacher is "larger-than-life", both physically and metaphorically. It is virtually impossible to view him as vulnerable or unsure of himself. His brute strength (mental and physical) are formidable against all "bad guys" irrespective of their origins, resources, or numbers. We immediately draw parallels with Reacher and Smoak relative to their hand to hand combat approaches. Notably Reacher often mentions his street-wise dirty fighting techniques learned from his time spent on army bases all over the world. Similarly, Smoak is taught the most immediately disabling and killing techniques "lifted" from martial arts disciplines from all over the globe. ORPHAN X and Reacher are two names that might immediately come to mind if we played the word association game and was given the phrase "One Man Army".
Let's just consider the basic background of Orphan X (that is the background of his recruitment by a shady government agency that educated and trained him from the age of 12 to be a lethal assassin, skilled at hand to hand combat, a mish-mash of lethal martial arts to maim or kill instantly, expertise in weaponry to include blades, hand guns, rifles, explosives, and to utilize and deploy the most state of the art equipment available at the time), AND his purpose of using his skills to fight corruption in the form of vigilante justice. There is really only ONE direct comparison and that is the immortal character of Robert McCall, The Equalizer. Readers may recall that this popular crime drama series ran on TV from 1985 - 1989. The talented Edward Woodward starred as a retired intelligence agent with a mysterious past, who uses the skills from his former career to exact justice on behalf of innocent people
who are trapped in dangerous circumstances. The series combined elements of the spy and vigilante genres. It was my favorite TV Series at the time, and I now revisit its iconic drama via DVD Collections. Now obviously, the character of "Orphan X" differs, especially in the age and physical description department. Evan Smoak is young and in his prime, hopefully for many, many installments to come.
Gregg Hurwitz effectively delivers an absolute masterpiece of suspense, thrills, and chills that conjured up for this reader at least the memories of the very best of Batman, 007, Jason Bourne, Reacher, and Golden Globe Winner Edward Woodward as The Equalizer.
As a reader I am attempting to stress that I do not consider Hurwitz to have been all that derivative when he created the impressively unique fictional character of Evan Smoak. If anything the debut novel which introduced "Orphan X" contains obvious "call outs" to these larger than life heroes from yester-year. For example, when he barely escapes a mortal stab wound delivered by a woman he had considered an "innocent", Smoak effectively makes it back to his sanctuary. He administers what he thinks of as first aid, but uses technology that is pure state of the art. Evan recuperates in his "suspended" science-fiction worthy bed. Readers of Ian Fleming will recall Bond's escapades in the debut novel Casino Royale. Seeing it on the big screen (I'm partial to Daniel Craig's interpretation and portrayal of "Bond"), the near-fatal poisoning, Bond's display of critical thinking, making it from the casino into his state-of-the art vehicle (like Smoak's normal looking truck SO much more than "just a car"), then summoning emergency medical assistance, and having it directed through computer technology...it was spectacular. The "call outs" to Bond are the ingenious gadgetry and state of the art tools, both for offense and defense, employed by Smoak.
Jason Bourne. Did a more lethal killer exist in modern fiction? I can't think of any...except perhaps (now) "Orphan X" AKA Evan Smoak. These are additional ways that trigger our memories of Bourne and his innate ability to kill or maim in a heartbeat using only his hands. The mastery of weaponry of course is not unique to Bourne, but it is nevertheless a call-out to such deadly adversaries as Bourne. Smoak rappelling down the side of his high rise building and then bursting through the glass to rescue the girl was a priceless and memorable action sequence. He neutralized the threat in seconds, not to mention dismantling and reassembling the bad guy's gun in the blink of an eye. I had memories of Batman, Bond, Bourne, and even Reacher racing through my head (maybe a little bit of The Matrix and Mission Impossible as well).
Hurwitz creates a truly unique protagonist who is unlike any other of the iconic heroes past and present, but the author delivers a tour de force of suspense and thrills that rivals the likes of Fleming, Ludlum, and the other greats who gave the world fighters for justice like Batman, and lethal vigilantes like the great Robert McCall [CLASSIFIED AD: "GOT A PROBLEM? ODDS AGAINST YOU? CALL THE EQUALIZER: 212 555 4200."].
The simple fact is that Hurwitz uses a guided missile in the guise of a man named Smoak AKA Orphan X, to invoke the very best of Bond's imaginative gadgetry, Bourne's physicality and lethal force, Batman's courageous heart and ingenious style (just without the cape), and yeah, even some elements of the immortal Jack (No Middle Name) Reacher. Jack may figure odds ALL the time but he doesn't turn away from an "innocent" in need ANY time. Just read his latest adventure "BLUE MOON". Well, I'll say this, it's doggone definitely been a "Blue Moon" since I've been this excited about a new hero and new series. I've late getting on board, but I am here to stay.