Fifteen years ago my reading consisted exclusively of action thrillers from the likes of Robert Ludlum, Jack Higgins and Tom Clancy ― basically the stuff on my dad’s shelves. Over time, my reading tastes have broadened (I’m reticent to use the word “matured,” as I once might’ve, in an effort to appeal to the “literati,” because I think that does an injustice to the authors who pen them) and I’ve become a little more conscientious about selecting which thriller writers make the cut.
Guys like Mark Greaney and Gregg Hurwitz write major cinematic blockbusters; other authors are a little more direct-to-video ― you know, cookie-cutter heroes, conventional plots; not necessarily bad, but certainly not as enterprising.
And so here we are with “Slough House,” the seventh instalment in Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, and “Prodigal Son,” the sixth Orphan X novel by Gregg Hurwitz: two thrillers seismically disparate in approach, both dragging long coattails of continuity, both extraordinarily polished page-turners.
“Prodigal Son” is a kinetic, breathless, action-packed masterpiece that sees Evan Smoak — former government operative Orphan X turned former vigilante harbinger of justice, “the Nowhere Man” — snapped from retirement by a phone call from a woman claiming to be his mother. She wants Evan to protect a former member of the Pride House Group Home he was plucked from as a teenager to be moulded into an assassin. Andrew Duran has landed himself a James Bond-level adversary, who wields tiny, murderous drones as his weapons of choice; not to mention a sadistic brother-sister team of killers.
Hurwitz is the king of action-lit, operating in the same realm as Ludlum, Greaney, Carr and Flynn; a veneer of authenticity regarding the technology described, but the action itself amplified to “Mission: Impossible” levels. Here, Smoak can survive a head on vehicular collision with little more than whiplash; in Mick Herron’s universe, such an ordeal is likely to kill the character involved, or if they’re lucky enough to survive, have them so bent and broken we’ll be reading about it further in future series entries. Herron’s the closest contemporary approximation to John le Carre we have, albeit his books are drenched in wry humour, the politicking and intelligence gathering played for equal parts drama and comedy.
In “Slough House,” Jackson Lamb’s Slow Horses — MI5 operatives banished from the higher echelons of Regent’s Park for a variety of shortcomings and vices —have had their personal information purged from government computers, while veteran members are being stalked by Russian agents. It’s all connected to bureaucratic manoeuvring by Diana Taverner, the First Chair at Regent’s Park; although in this instance she may’ve bitten off more than she can chew.
Hurwitz is a master of orchestrating mayhem, the sort involving gut battles, harrowing high-speed escapes and lethal hand-to-hand fights. Herron builds his plots slowly, steadily, working them to conclusions with the occasional crack of violence, but more often resolved at a bench overlooking the Thames, or a quiet restaurant. They’re very different kinds of thrillers, but of the same consummate class.
Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz Published: 2 February 2021 ISBN: 9780241402863 Imprint: Michael Joseph Format: Trade Paperback Pages: 464
Slough House by Mick Herron Published: 4 February 2021 ISBN: 9781529378658 Imprint: John Murray Publishers Ltd Format: Trade Paperback Pages: 320
On the eve of his retirement as “the Nowhere Man” — a harbinger of justice for those in need of desperate aid — former clandestine government assassin Evan Smoak — the infamous “Orphan X” — finds himself pitted against a seemingly endless supply of gun-totting goons as he attempts to liberate Max Merriweather from the looming threat of the bad guys who murdered his cousin.
Gregg Hurwitz writes with the pace and economy of a blockbuster action movie. Think Michael Bay’s The Rock or Bad Boys; not so much Transformers; thrillers with some semblance of heart and humanity. He understands the lurid pleasures readers want from their action-lit, and delivers in spades. In Into the Fire, Smoak is forced to infiltrate a police precinct; go undercover (and unarmed) into a maximum security prison; and face off against a barrage of gunmen nursing a concussion, armed with only a sniper rifle. All par for the course for Hurwitz’s hero, who readers know will walk out of every confrontation (relatively) unscathed; the pleasure comes from witnessing how he escapes these impossible odds.
The fifth book in the series, Into the Fire leans heavily into its established continuity. In some respects, this feels like a bridging novel between the next momentous phase in the life of Orphan X. Plot threads related to his Max Merriweather mission are suitably tied; but there’s plenty left dangling to suggest the next novel could be truly cataclysmic for Evan. New readers will still enjoy the bombastic action and bodycount, but longtime fans will truly appreciate the repercussions it potentially has for the series moving forward.
In the hotly-contested field of action-lit, Gregg Hurwitz comes out on top, time and time again.
Published: 11 February 2020 ISBN: 9780718185510 Imprint: Michael Joseph Format: Trade Paperback Pages: 480 RRP: $32.99
The badass amalgamation of Bond, Bourne, Reacher and Batman is back in a fourth instalment in the Orphan X saga — and this time it’s personal!
Evan Smoak is Orphan X, aka ‘The Nowhere Man;’ a one-time government assassin (as part of the covert ‘Orphan’ program) turned into a pro bono harbinger of justice, whose Bat Signal is a cell phone number. Over the course of this scenery-smashing series, a mysterious foe has been targeting Orphans for assassination. When we last caught up with Evan (2018’s Hellbent) he identified the orchestrator of the killings: none other than the President of the United States, the morally bankrupt Jonathan Bennett. Now, in Out of the Dark, it’s Evan out for blood; in Washington DC to exact revenge on the most powerful and well-protected man on the planet. Piece of cake, right?
Naturally, Evan is side-tracked by a ‘Nowhere Man’ case, but this time it feels like more of a subplot than imperative to the narrative; like Hurwitz was conscious he needed to give readers a break from Evan’s hunt for the President, just to remind readers he’s not exclusively a rogue government assassin, and that he abides by a moral code. When Trevon Gaines discovers his immediate family have been slaughtered by drug-smuggling he inadvertently crossed, he calls Evan’s encrypted line, and thus Orphan X finds himself aiding an intellectually challenged, but incredibly sweet and well-intentioned young man, which leads to a brilliant climactic battle that had me genuinely dumbfounded as to how Hurwitz would write Evan out of a particularly harrowing quandary.
Gregg Hurwitz has crammed an insane amount of action into his Orphan X quartet, but he doesn’t relish in the bloodbaths his characters unleash with stunning regularity. Bodies are bruised and bloodied amidst the chaos, and there’s always a moment of reflection when — win, lose or draw — its perpetrators realise their lives will never be anything but violent; it’s cyclical and senseless, and by mastering its craft they’ve fallen into an inescapable chasm that renders any chance of a normal life impossible. Even when Evan wins, he loses.
Fast, furious, frenetic; Out of the Dark ends Evan Smoke’s inaugural story-arc, tying off several loose threads from previous novels. Wherever the character goes from here, I’ll be there with him. Nobody writes a better high-stakes action thriller than Hurwitz.
ISBN: 9780718185497 Format: Paperback / softback Pages: 448 Imprint: Michael Joseph Ltd Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd Publish Date: 5-Feb-2019 Country of Publication: United Kingdom
Evan Smoak, the titular character of Orphan X and its sequel, The Nowhere Man, is a highly-trained professional assassin, plucked from an orphanage as a boy and trained to Jason Bourne levels of badassery. But Smoak turned against his programming — naturally — and escaped their clutches, choosing instead to utilise his skills to help those in dire straits as The Nowhere Man. He lives in an apartment complex, in a unit that resembles the Batcave, and waits for his phone to ring – his equivalent to the Bat-Signal. He has no personal life, no real friends or family: he lives for the mission.
It’s a great setup for a series, which is slightly undermined in this sequel, purely because it strips away much of what made the first novel so great. Sure, the action is non-stop and intensely visceral, and the stakes are ratcheted up to the extreme; but the supporting cast — Evan’s neighbours — barely feature, and the book clings onto his convoluted backstory. I had hoped, with the origin story out of the way, Gregg Hurwitz might provide some first-rate standalone thrillers before returning to Smoak’s past, but that’s not the case. In fact, I’m wondering now if the Orphan X / Nowhere Man series is actually a trilogy, because it feels like, come this novel’s end, we’re gearing up towards a grand confrontation in the next book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it just feels like there’s more to explore with this character and his world.
The Nowhere Man sees Evan ambushed, drugged kidnapped, and held captive at an unknown, isolated location. His captors want money — Evan has access to almost limitless clandestine accounts — and they don’t seem to realise just how valuable he is. Removed from his equipment, Smoak pits his skills against a determined, psychotic crew, while dangerous figures from his past close in.
There’s not much new here, but The Nowhere Man is a fine thriller, punctuated with plenty of action that’ll keep thriller buffs entertained for its entirety. Only Lee Child’s Jack Reacher kicks as much ass as efficiently as Evan Smoak.
ISBN: 9781405910743 Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm) Pages: 400 Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd Publish Date: 26-Jan-2017 Country of Publication: United Kingdom
Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X is an unapologetic action-packed thriller — the kind that would’ve made Robert Ludlum proud —and is a promising start for what will likely be a long and successful series.
Evan Smoak is the titular character, Orphan X; a highly-trained professional assassin, plucked from an orphanage as a boy and trained to James Bond levels of badassery. But, as heroes are prone to do, Smoak turned against his programming and escaped their clutches, choosing instead to utilise his skills to help those in dire straits. It’s serious clandestine work, and as such, Smoak doesn’t have anything resembling a social life. He lives in an apartment complex, in a unit that makes the Batcave pale in comparison, and waits for his phone to ring. Because that phone call is Smoak’s Bat-Signal.
Hurwitz quickly establishes Smoak’s skills, and soon throws his life into chaos: not just because his latest mission has gone sour, with potentially devastating consequences for himself and his client, but because he’s allowed the real world to seep into his violent one, as he forms a relationship with a woman and her son residing in his building. For the first time, Smoak is breaking his commandments, and there’s a cost to pay for that.
Orphan X is high-octane stuff, and once Hurwitz steps on the gas he doesn’t let up. There’re cool action set-pieces – the finale in particular, a one-on-one hand combat extravaganza, is expertly choreographed – and there are twists and betrayals that are genuinely surprising. Its only problem is the overarching plot is a little formulaic; anyone who has read more than a dozen thrillers will be familiar with the set-up of the assassin turning against his masters, and while Hurwitz does it better than most, there’s still a slight feeling of uniformity. That said, one gets the feeling that aspect doesn’t necessarily have to be the driving point of future instalments. Orphan X reads very much like an origin story, and now that Smoak’s background has been dealt with, Hurwitz is free to have his protagonist tackle an eclectic mix of threats. Bring it on!
Orphan X is the kind of page-turner that begs to be read in a single sitting. Gregg Hurtwitz’s latest is more than just filler while you wait for the next Reacher, Bond or Matthew Reilly novel. This is an author who has levelled up, has improved book-after-book, and is establishing himself in the big leagues now. The other guys should be looking over their shoulders.
Published: 01/02/2016 Format: Paperback, 544 pages RRP: $32.99 ISBN: 9781405910712 Imprint: Michael Joseph Publisher: Penguin UK Origin: United Kingdom