T. Jefferson Parker has been experimenting with mainstream fiction, magic realism and other potential distractions. In THE ROOM OF WHITE FIRE he returns, pedal-to-the-metal, with a beautiful piece of crime fiction. The protagonist is Roland Ford, an ex-cop, ex-marine, current PI from Falbrook, CA. Roland is hired to find a young man named Clay Hickman, an escaped patient from a mental institution. The facility is owned by a rich psychologist whose enhanced interrogation techniques were adopted by the CIA. This individual, Briggs Spencer, employs some nasty security personnel and jousts with Clay Hickman’s doctor, Paige Hulet. Both Paige and Briggs tell Roland to call them first if and when he finds Clay. When he is told the same thing by a CIA operative, it becomes clear that Roland has entered a web of evil and deceit from which he might never emerge. Roland’s nascent romantic relationship with Paige (Roland has recently lost his wife and still carries the wounds) constitutes the personal subplot.
Readers of the book’s Amazon reviews will learn quickly what the book is about, but let me alert readers to possible SPOILERS before I go further. I will not reveal any of the plot details. As I always tell my students, there are two things which are pivotal to a crime story: ‘what it is about’ and ‘what it is really about’ (= subject, theme). THE ROOM OF WHITE FIRE is about black sites for enhanced interrogation and the techniques developed by non-military, non-CIA psychologists. In this case, the site is in Romania. What it is really about is the traversing of the line that separates good from evil; Parker’s brief but explicit references to Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS say it all. As Roland comes to see, there are actions so horrific that they lead some to lose their souls but save their minds, while others lose their minds in order to save their souls.
The reader should be warned that there are two extended scenes detailing the nature of specific forms of torture. These are very explicit and will be too strong for some readers.
The bottom line is that this is a superb novel with fascinating characters, a strong sense of setting, a piledriver plot (with a crescendo ending complete with aftershocks) and heavy thematic freight which, at some points, rises to the level of prose poetry. TJP is back and we can only hope that we will see Roland Ford again, and soon. Some have felt that TJP had temporarily lost his voice; if that is true he has found it once again, along with the crime fiction chops on which he built his career and reputation.