This is the third in a series of ten articles on the authors whose works I make a point of buying, even pre-ordering new titles, without question.
I don’t profess to be an expert on any of these authors, or a rabid fan-boy. To that end, I’m not saying I have read everything they have ever written (and some of them have written a lot- occasionally in varying genres and under pseudonyms), but doing this light touch background reading (I wouldn’t be so grandiose as to claim it to as ‘research’) I do occasionally find works the author has produced I haven’t gotten around to yet – so writing these things can get a little expensive, and my Kindle or postman gets loaded down with ‘new old titles’…such is the case with Gregg Hurwitz, and I’ve found myself ordering a couple of graphic novels and even a whole series I haven’t gotten around to yet. This means two things:
- These articles are in no way considered to be comprehensive deep-dives (they have author pages and a thing called Wikipedia for that)
- My own writing – both fiction and the posts you find on this here blog, may slow a little in the aftermath. It’s a tough life finding nice things…
The other thing about this series I’d point out is that it’s not the intention to praise one author at the expense of damning others – singular or as a group. That’s important to point out because…
I’m a bit sick of those ‘lone wolf’ protagonists. You know the type I mean – the series that may start out with a couple of decent plots but then go on…and on…to the point where there’s no real risk. No real sense of danger, because the character has become Bond-like in their invincibility, and said character is placed against sometimes tissue-thin plots which seem to be there only as an excuse to concentrate on the hero’s studliness.
It was with this attitude in mind to the sub-genre that I came across the Evan Smoak series, the first of which (‘Orphan X’) was published in 2016, and whose fourth instalment is due early 2019. I bought the book, as I’d enjoyed all of Hurwitz’s books I’d previously read (more on those in a moment) and demolished it in 24 hours. If you pick the book up you’ll see a lot of comparisons, as is the publishing way – ‘if you like x (no pun intended) then you’ll love y…’ So the Bourne and Reacher references were there and maybe, like those characters in their early days, there are comparisons to be made, but Smoak (the titular ‘Orphan X’) has, for those looking for action fiction characters, a lot more going for him at this moment in time. A product of the clandestine Orphan programme moulding young children into shadowy operatives trained to expertly kill on command, Evan Smoak is a hi-tech living vodka connoisseur (with attention to detail on his alcohol tastes that Ian Fleming would admire) loner who is looking to make amends for his dark past. He helps people and the only payment he asks from them is to pass his name on to someone else who needs his help. Perhaps needless to say, this ‘help’ does not tend to involve fence fixing or tax returns. What has made the books stand out so far are the obvious things you might expect, but are all too rarely missing, in protagonist action series: an enigmatic and layered hero, a textured supporting cast (both in his mentor Jack and their relationship, and his next door neighbour Mia and her young son Peter), and antagonists who actually offer a threat, rather than just an excuse for dismantlement and dispersement. Throughout the three books in the series so far, Hurwitz has created a rich world the players live in: there are individual stories, but it’s part of a wider, on-going world of plot. If Smoak doesn’t have Jason Bourne’s amnesia, he does have questions he wants answers to, and they’re not ones which are easily tossed off amid another round of beating up the bad guys. (Don’t get me wrong: there is that, but it’s done well and for a reason – both in story advancement and in character development.) The fourth Smoak instalment is due soon, and I’ve got mine on order.
So there you go. Orphan X and Gregg Hurwitz’s career covered completely in under 400 words.
Well, not quite.
As I was reading the first Orphan X, there were a few times I actually laughed or made varying noises of appreciation, to the point where my wife asked me what I was chuntering on about. I made some comment about it being good to see a writer who had really earned his chops turning to the publisher’s dream of ‘the new Reacher’ after writing a whole bunch of good, stand-alone, extremely well-written plot driven novels. Smart move, I said – and deserving to ‘cash in’ on the market – it’ll be movie before you know it. (Originally optioned by Bradley Cooper I think it’s actually now under consideration as a TV series attached to Justin Lin, from Fast and the Furious).
That was not really the right thing to say for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it sounds reductive, and I don’t mean it to – as my reading likes and comments should have shown throughout the articles I’ve written here, I have absolutely nothing against a well written series. I love series characters – whether it’s a Hap and Leonard, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Dan Starkey, Myron Bolitar, Roland Deschain or many others. I love my movies too (duh) – although the success of literary characters in them have been generally less successful (at the time of writing, Tom Cruise has just been exited from the Jack Reacher movies after two fairly lack-lustre efforts, Sundance have cancelled the rather brilliant Hap and Leonard series, Bernie was played by Whoopie Goldberg for god’s sake. the less said about The Dark Tower movie the better, and maybe because of these sorts of experiences and many more, some authors just don’t let Hollywood near their characters…)
Secondly, the Orphan X books so far have felt far from a ‘cash in’ effort, and they’re not Hurwitz’s first visit to the re-occurring series protagonist: between 2004 and 2007 he wrote four novels around Tim Rackley – a disillusioned deputy state Marshall – one of the books I mentioned at the start of this article that I have not read, but a series now sitting in my Kindle queue.
But it’s not the new series that made Gregg Hurwitz one of the authors who will appear on my pre-order list (although it didn’t hurt, to be sure.) No – that really came about from a long history of his stand-alone thrillers. I’ve written elsewhere about the similarities in thriller genre elements: mainly in terms of covers (I attended a very interesting seminar on designing book covers by Stuart Bache recently…more on that in a coming article), and titles (I’m thinking about working on a thriller title generator which creates two or three word titles). So it may be because of a Hold Tight or a Stay Close or a Don’t Let Go or a Free Fall or Mortal Fear or another two or three word title by another thriller writer that brought me to my first Gregg Hurwitz book: I honestly don’t remember. But I don’t pay too much heed to a title: I’ll remember a ‘Salem’s Lot’ or an ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being’ but all too often in my travelling days when I’d pick up a new book at whatever airport I was in, the titles and even the one line pitches tended to blur into one – all too often the ‘floor pitch’ (they’re not even long enough to be described as an ‘elevator pitch’) either don’t live up to their promise; they seem to stray into a much less interesting and often generic story after an interesting floor pitch premise. But it would have been one of those types of pitches that made me pick one of Hurwitz’s titles up for the first time, because they tend to be doozies, and, unlike many of those previously hinted at, they live up to their promise. Don’t believe me? Here’s three I’ve abridged myself:
- A stranger comes up to you at a party and says, “I know you, don’t I?” You don’t know him, but he certainly knows you…and everything is about to go to hell for you and your family. (You’re Next)
- A thriller writer wakes up with no memory of how he got there to be told he is responsible for the murder of his ex-fiancée. And she’s not the last to die. (I See You)
- You open your morning newspaper to find a DVD inside of you and your wife going about your everyday life. Inside your house. And there’s a message: Go Alone, Do what we say. Or she dies. (Or She Dies)
Yeah, those will get me reading. But I’ve started a lot of books with similarly strong premises. Haven’t finished them all. Gregg Hurwitz books I’ve always finished, and then sought out another.
I think Gregg Hurwitz would be an interesting guy to sit down and have a drink with – not Vodka for me these days, but hey, that’s okay. I’d like to know more about his time doing his Masters on Shakespeare at my old gaff Oxford University – so maybe we could meet in Stratford Upon Avon (it’s only five miles down the road from me, as I may have mentioned when describing my recent radio interview there). I’d probably ask him about his work on comic books given he’s written on (amongst others) three of my favourite characters (The Punisher, Moon Knight and Batman). I’d be intrigued to know more about how he found writing for TV and Hollywood – particularly The Book of Henry – a movie I saw the trailer for and thought looked very interesting but disappeared under critical opinion and hasn’t surfaced yet on streaming here in the UK.
I’d be interested to know he thinks should play Orphan X if the project does come to light, about how much in-person research he really does for his books and what it’s like to hang out with a SEAL team doing it. If I got him enough Vodka I might ask him to take a look at some of my own work, given his role as guest lecturer in literature at UCLA. Hell, given he played football (still can’t call it ‘soccer’) while here in England and continues to do so in the States, I might even ask him if he could put me in touch with a certain Orphan who might take care of a troubling owner of Newcastle United…
You can find out more about Gregg Hurwitz at his website: http://gregghurwitz.net
As always, if for some bizarre reason you’re not reading Basement Tales or You Could Make a Killing, both available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle and Kindle Unlimited, you could check out any of these titles, and many more besides…you’ll not be disappointed.