Evan Smoak, AKA Orphan X, AKA The Nowhere Man, is back but finds himself not quite so irrepressible in the eighth novel in the Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz. Early in the book, the counter surveillance techniques he uses to stay under the radar fail him and, worse still, he fumbles with his firearm at a crucial moment. As a result, the hitman is taken into government custody. Throughout the story he ruminates on getting old and losing his touch. Even so, he’s still pretty good at what he does and, as with previous Smoak novels, there’s plenty of hand-to-hand combat, gunplay and military grade technology to keep the pages turning.
The novel opens with a happy-go-lucky young man called Johnny Seabrook going to a party at a huge mansion in the Hamptons. Wandering through a sea of excess and debauchery – drink, drugs and free love, basically – Johnny stumbles into a room he shouldn’t be in, sees something he shouldn’t see, and is shot in the shoulder. He tries to flee but is tracked down and murdered.
Meanwhile, the president of the United States has arranged for Evan to be captured and offered a pardon if he’ll eliminate the powerful billionaire Luke Devine, who is using his wealth plus other forms of leverage to block an environment bill in Congress. Pardoned for…? Well, various crimes he’s committed over the years.
Evan is a product of the Orphan program. A child with no parents to care for him, he was trained in weaponry, combat and killing, as well as in how to control his emotions, evade his enemies and survive brutal interrogations. He’s a human weapon, a bit like Jason Bourne, and there’s a character similar to Evan, but on the Russian side, in Cry Wolf by Hans Rosenfeldt.
The problem is that killing Devine would go against Evan’s code. Evan won’t work for organised crime, state bodies or political causes. He’ll only use his skills to help people who really need it – basically, the victims of those listed above. He’ll only kill someone who deserves it.
When Evan looks into the president’s request, he discovers a link between Luke Devine and his parties in the Hamptons and two dead bodies discovered in a ghetto apartment. One of them is Johnny Seabrook, the other that of a young woman who was raped and had her neck snapped. Evan decides to find out who was responsible and exact justice on behalf of Johnny’s parents and younger sister. Their lives have been ruined by Johnny’s murder and the sister’s efforts to achieve justice have resulted in death threats.
Was Devine responsible? If so, should Evan take him out and receive his pardon?
The man is guarded by six former marines previously implicated in civilian deaths over in Afghanistan, and now Evan is on their radar. A lethal game of cat and mouse begins between Evan and the security team but just when you think Evan is going to hunt them down one by one, he decides to strike at the serpent’s head and attempts a power move on their boss.
Evan’s world is a great place to visit if escapist action and extreme violence – in the name of justice – are what you seek. On the one hand, he’s a simple man who lives by a code, which helps him survive and thrive off grid. Ironically, the suppression of his emotions and his apparent disassociation from normal social structures like family lead to a much more complicated character underneath. He does have friends, and has become a father figure to Joey, a 17-year-old female hacker who was also on the Orphan program. Like a Robin Hood with a laser targeting device, he instinctively sides with anyone who is innocent or in danger against those who abuse their power – whether they’re presidents, billionaires, terrorists or corrupt law enforcement.
The Last Orphan’s plot doesn’t flow exactly as you’d expect. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – we all want suspense and surprises in an action thriller like this. However, the tempo feels a little off kilter. After his capture by the US authorities in California, the intensity fades during the middle of the story and there’s quite a lot of hand wringing and chin rubbing while Evan decides whether Devine is worth pursuing. The lone wolf aspect of Evan wears thin too, and you end up feeling that he can do and get away with anything. After all, he’s supported by Joey on tech, has a mechanic working for him who seems to be able to source any weapon or vehicle, and there’s another billionaire who will lend him a private jet at the drop of a hat. There’s even another Orphan program killer who helps him out.
But there’s no law against extravagance in a book which is essentially about kicking ass. Evan’s dry humour and some of the ludicrous actions of his adversaries lead to several laugh-out-loud moments, while the sheer entertainment of this read is nicely balanced with a little exploration of the big issues we read about every day, such as macho politicking, the power and entitlement of the mega rich, exploitation, the military-industrial complex, gender politics and more. Even in the format of an escapist thriller, Gregg Hurwitz has some good points to make and they do add interest.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars