The Room of White Fire by T. Jefferson Parker follows a P.I. who must hunt down a soldier who is damaged by war, dangerous, and on the run.
Full disclosure: I’m a huge, huge fan of T. Jefferson Parker’s work. I remember reading Where Serpents Lie and thinking “This is what suspense can be?” The Blue Hour is also a favorite—one of the best cop stories (with a heartbreaking romance to boot) that I’ve ever read. Then, on to the distinct border noir of his Charlie Hood series, which combines complex themes of crime and family (or what makes a family) laced with a literary mysticism that seems as natural a part of the landscape as does the hoods and cops that make up the cast. The Room of White Fire is no exception to Parker’s history of excellence, and it introduces a new character to fall in love with.
In it, we meet Roland Ford—ex-cop, ex-Marine, pilot, current PI, and widower of nearly three years. When he’s offered a job to find 28-year-old Clay Hickman, it seems straightforward at first. Clay has “escaped” from Arcadia, a mental health facility that looks more like a spa than a hospital, and Ford is told that he is erratic and possibly dangerous. His doctor, Paige Hulet, is desperate to get him back before he hurts himself or others. As for getting off the grounds, Clay talked a 19-year-old woman named Sequoia into helping him dig out under the perimeter fence. Ford tries to get an idea of Clay’s mindset:
I handed her the envelope and she looked at the pictures. “These make him look kind of stoned. In real life he’s happier, but pretty random, too.”
“His mind won’t stop for long. The spider monkeys at my work have more focus than him. Really. But he’s upbeat. Maybe he’s always that way. I mean, I only spent a few hours with him.”
I told her what I could about him, which wasn’t much. Prosperous family, military service, a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, sometimes delusional and violent.
“Jeez, for reals?”
“Really. When did you next talk to him after the ‘Crazy, wanna come’ line?”
“The very next day. I was curious, you know. So I drove back at the same time and waited a while, and there he came, running again. I got out of the car and yelled out, ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’ He came over, breathing hard, pretty sweaty. He asked if I had any water in my truck and I did. So I got a bottle and tossed it over the fence and he drank it half down. He said his name was Jason. He asked me if I lived around here. Then he finished the bottle and tossed it back. One of the guys in white came running out of the trees about then, way behind. Jason asked if I could meet him the next day, same place and time. So we did. And that’s when he told me how he needed to get out of the hospital but they were keeping him prisoner and he’d pay me a lot of money for a shovel. I said I’d bring him the shovel but not for money. I had a good feeling about him from the very start. I’ve always been an excellent judge of character. Except once, actually, when I was a really bad judge.”
“Do you have any idea where he went?”
She looked out at the oaks and the distant chaparral. “He said his parents were rich. Own the Family Suites hotel chain, and I know they got one of those down on Hotel Circle.”
From what had been suggested about his family, I figured the Family Suites would be the last place Clay Hickman would land.
Sequoia set her can on the table with a tinny knock. “What he talked about was his mission. Which was to bring white fire to Deimos. ‘My mission is to bring white fire to Deimos.’ He said Deimos was the Greek god of terror, which I barely remembered from Miss Benson in high school. Clay—I still want to call him Jason—but Clay said he was almost clear on how to accomplish his mission. And when the meds finally washed out of him he’d see everything perfectly, like he used to. He said he’d built up resistance to electroshock but the doctors didn’t know. I didn’t think they did electroshock anymore. Shocking another human being’s brain? No animal in nature would do such a cruel thing to another.”
As Ford starts digging around Arcadia and into Clay’s background, he finds out a few things that give him pause. His family claims Clay served in Iraq, but Ford finds out he actually served in Romania—possibly at a black site where prisoners were tortured. Additionally, the man that owns Arcadia, psychologist Briggs Spencer, sets off just about every alarm bell for Ford. He helped write a program that taught captured U.S. servicemen how to survive captivity and torture. From a news article:
Now the just released Senate report on CIA Detention and Interrogation programs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is naming them as co-authors of one of the darkest chapters in American history—the torture of hundreds of detainees in “secret” CIA “black sites” scattered throughout the mid-East, Europe and Asia…
More digging brings more questions, and Ford begins to doubt that returning Clay to Arcadia is the best thing for him. Not only that, but he’s been separately asked by Hulet, Briggs, and Clay’s family to let them—and them only—know when he turns up. Yeahhh, it all smells fishy.
Ford is being tailed by goons that seem to want to clock his every move, and all he wants to do is get to Clay and make sure he and Sequoia are safe. Hickman isn’t an innocent, but he’s also a victim, and Parker is careful to point that out and explore the reasons behind it.
This book works not only as a helluva thriller but also as an exploration of good and evil, how muddled they can become, and how good intentions can be twisted into something horrible. Clay genuinely believes he’s helping his country and helping to stop terrorism, but it all goes sideways so quickly. How does one keep their soul after everything goes so very wrong?
One thing is clear: Clay has an explosive secret, and Briggs will do anything to get his hands on it before the truth gets out—especially since he’s got a book tour coming up, one that promises to make him a household name. The face of evil isn’t always so obvious, and it’s something that Ford knows very well.
Luckily, Ford has a lot of friends to help him, and the cast of characters was one of my favorite parts of this book. After his wife Justine—a lawyer and a pilot—was killed when she crashed her plane, he was left a ranch by her family that has six casitas on the property. These casitas are populated by some very eccentric, eclectic characters, including his own grandparents (who live in separate casitas). My favorite is Burt. Look for a scene in which the diminutive man disarms a CIA heavy in no time flat.
Ford is haunted by Justine, and his grief and longing are palpable things. Figuratively, ghosts are all over these pages. There are ghosts of war. There are also ghosts—or remnants—of the terrible tragedy that occurred at a black site in Romania in the presence of a young man that thought he was doing the right thing for his country, promised as much by those he trusted.
This one gutted me and even made me weep, but it never loses sight of the hope that exists even in the darkest of times. Parker makes you wish that his characters were your friends in real life. When you’re done, you’re possibly an emotional wreck, but you’ll soon go back for more. When it comes to T. Jefferson Parker’s work, I’ll always go back for more. This one is a powerful, terrifying exploration of the evil that men do, but ultimately, it’s a testament to good and the human spirit.
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