Book Review: Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz
By Susan AmperJanuary 23, 2020
Into the Fire is the 5th entry in Gregg Hurwitz’s hugely entertaining Orphan X series, which follows Evan Smoak, who at the age of 12 was plucked from a foster home and trained as an assassin for the government’s secret Orphan X program.
He’s Jason Bourne with a touch of MacGyver and a hint of Dexter in his inability to function in the social world. He sometimes seems divorced from the rest of humanity. He’s rotten at small talk, he refuses to engage with any of his neighbors, and can often be found sneaking out of the building to avoid attention. The only two people in his apartment building of interest to him are Mia Hall and her nine-year-old son.
Mia and Evan have engaged in something more than a dalliance but less than a relationship. He found her mind and her body unreasonably appealing, and it seemed she had found some appeal in him, too. Unfortunately, their rapport was complicated by the fact that—as a DA—if she ever uncovered who he really was, she would have to have him arrested. After she’d gleaned the contours of his extracurriculars, they’d settled on an uneasy don’t-ask don’t-tell policy that had worked out about as well as the Clintonian original. Their non-dalliance non-relationship had not ended harmoniously.
Some of Evan Smoak’s social awkwardness can be attributed to his unusual upbringing.
At the age of 12, he’d been pulled out of foster home in East Baltimore and raised in a full black-covert operation buried so deep inside the U.S. government that virtually no one knew it existed. His upbringing consisted of relentless physical, emotional, cultural, and psychological training, a grinding wheel that honed him into a razor-sharp implement. His handler Jack Johns, raised him not merely to be a top-tier assassin but also a human being—two reactive elements that, if put under enough pressure, might combust.
And then Jack taught him how to integrate those pieces. To balance on the tightrope dividing yin from yang. To not combust.
It was a lifelong challenge.
But Evan has gone rogue from the Orphan Program, keeping only the alias he’d earned as the Program’s top asset: The Nowhere Man. He now devotes himself to helping people in desperate circumstances using his skills and training to take a few more bad guys off the board. His RoamZone, phone “encased in a hardened rubber and Gorilla glass, was as durable as a hockey puck and essentially impossible to trace. Every incoming call to 1-855-2-NOWHERE traveled in digital form over the Internet through a labyrinth of encrypted virtual private network tunnels” and “Evan always answered the phone the same way. Do you need my help?”
Max Merriweather desperately needs his help. He’s down on his luck, with many mistakes haunting him from his past, but he made a promise to his cousin, forensic accountant Grant Merriweather who has been tortured and murdered. Grant left Max an envelope with “DO NOT OPEN” scrawled across and instructions to deliver it to an L.A. Time reporter The reporter is soon murdered, and it becomes clear that the someone who wants the envelope is ruthless enough to kill anyone who knows Max leading him to turn to Evan Smoak.
The envelope contains a flash drive with spreadsheets that Evan and his protégé Josephine (Joey) Morales, ex-Orphan and hacker whiz, determine to contain a money laundering scheme that ranges through L.A.’s criminal underworld.
After four previous Orphan X adventures, Evan is evolving. Rather than success at avoiding his neighbors, he is pressed into bringing “snacks” to the homeowner’s association meeting. When the time comes, he checks his fridge for “nibbles,” and what he finds is “five saline bags, a jar of pearl onions, several ampules of epinephrine, and a half-eaten doorstop of Huntsman cheese,” and on looking into his pantry, he found “nothing there he could really alchemize into a crudités platter.”
Evan does not have serving bowls, so water glasses would have to do, and he jams drained olives into the glasses. The olives, and one of his premier Vodkas, make for his contributions as “snack docent.” His fellow homeowners are nonplussed by the olives; they were thinking more along the lines of chips and salsa. Evan explains,
“The Spanish Queens are a classic, though you’ll want to rinse them before you put them in a glass so you don’t brine the vodka.”
“Vodka?’ Johnny Middleton said.
“Oh, right…This is rye-based small batch. You’ll taste a hint of smoke in it, a toasty charge on the tongue…the grain oil hits mid-palate, and if you pay attention, you can grab a hint of orange peel and lavender…”
Everyone was staring at him in a manner that suggested they were captivated less by what he was saying than by the fact that he was saying it at all.
His voice lost steam. “The Castelvetranos are best with a flavorless vodka, something delicate . . .” He is interrupted by a member who says, “I like olives stuffed with red pepper.”
He suppressed a shudder. “It’s a martini. Not a tapenade.”
…Evan wondered how anyone got through an HOA meeting without alcohol but decided against raising that objection.
Once away from the horror of the homeowners’ association, Evan thinks he has rounded up the usual suspects in the money laundering operation and tells Max his problems are solved. Evan sends him to Hollywood Station with the flash drive and tells him to let the cops figure out the rest. Unbeknownst to either man, Max will be tossed right back into the thick of trouble. A couple of crooked cops arrest Max, hoping to contain the chaos his questions have caused. On learning this, Evan is certain Max will die before the night is out, so he grifts into the police station and, shooting some bad guys, gets Max back. Evan’s job, though, is not yet complete.
To find Mr. Big, Evan enlists the services of Joey. Joey soon discovers the guy is in jail awaiting a trial for wire fraud and the info on the USB would help to put him away.
Getting into jail proves much easier than getting out. Especially as Evan must kill a few people on the way. Not able to bring in any weapons, Smoak uses a section of a newspaper and with ten pages of paper, he meticulously rolled, dried, and hardened it into a single solid object paper mache spear. He causes a small riot to get to the man he needs to kill. Once done, he has Joey puts the jail comms on the fritz facilitating his escape.
And like a horror movie where the villain won’t stay dead, another bad guy has taken the reigns.
Evan and Max need to get into Mr. Big’s safe to be sure all evidence is accounted for. During one of Evan’s MacGyver moments, he uses a fingerprint taken from an iPad to open a safe:
He walked back to the garage and retrieved wood glue…a pencil…a shampoo heavy in glycerin and grabbed a few Qtips. Evan squeezed a dab of wood glue on the surface well north of the print. Then he stirred in a drop of shampoo to moisten and putty up the glue
He smashed the pencil and use his fingernail to scrape graphite dust from the core, sprinkling in onto Bedroso’s fingerprint. He blew the excess away, a layer of raised graphite clinging to the print.
Max said, ‘You are an insane person.”
Evan said, “Thank you.”
And with the fingerprint, “he can open the safe which holds a single thumb drive. And nothing else. The mission had begun with a thumb drive. Looked like it would with one, too.”
More spreadsheets and lots more money to the tune of two hundred and twelve million scammed from the city’s budget by several public officers.
The scheme required a perfectly placed set of men able to verify a fake spending cut. To corroborate a supposed budget shortfall. To create fictitious invoices. To nudge investigations into the circular file…at the end of the trail, there wasn’t a face but a committee.
As this final foe is vanquished, Evan wondered “how much atonement was enough?”
How much longer could he forge through refuse-choked alleys of cities, staring down eyes as black as the abyss, souls clouded with sick intentions?
Would he just keep going until he was holding down a slab at the morgue?
At some point had he earned enough of himself back to deserve something better?
He didn’t know. But he’d decided nonetheless.
“The next adventure would be his last…One last mission and he was out.”
We shall see. I feel hopeful that Evan Smoak will return, but will he remain the Nowhere Man? That’s the question.