‘Orphan X’ by Gregg Hurwitz: The best and worst of all assassins

orphanx

Rating: 5 stars

Gregg Hurwitz is an accomplished and well-known mystery writer, but his eponymous hero in this new novel, “Orphan X,” is a brand new character — strong, brilliant, tortured, disciplined. Of course, many heroes of the genre share those traits. Yet Orphan X is unique. His background and his talents are quite unlike other superficially similar characters.

His real name is Evan Smoak, as in the stuff that comes out of a recently fired gun, just spelled differently. At the age of twelve, Evan is snatched from the grounds of his orphanage by a mysterious man. That man becomes his trainer. And Evan becomes a highly-trained assassin who works for a government agency in a completely deniable role that goes along with a completely deniable existence. No one except his trainer knows who he is or what he does. He is the perfect product of the Orphan Program, one of several similarly trained assassins. But he is the best.

Then the Program is suddenly discontinued, and all the Orphans, adults now, are left to fend for themselves. Evan decides to use all his skills to save people who are desperate for help, victims of cruel and powerful people who seem unstoppable — until they are confronted by Orphan X. His most important rule in his new “job” is that he must work with only one victim at a time. He accomplishes this end by having the person he has just saved find one and only one new desperate person, who is given Evan’s contact number. When someone breaks that rule, Orphan X is in trouble.

As the plot unfolds, Evan first helps a seventeen-year-old girl who has been virtually enslaved by a crooked cop. Evan does his business (as only he can) to rescue her. But it is with the next victim that the problems begin — a twisting, tortuous, potentially deadly series of events which includes betrayals, murders, and a stubborn and cleverly planned pursuit of Orphan X himself. Someone, someone as brilliant as Evan, wants to kill him.

Evan is a marvelously complex character. He has all the social skills of a slab of wood. He has no real notion of what love is. He’s never learned how to function in the world that people inhabit. And he does not really exist at all as a member of any society. He’s a lost soul with a huge heart. And he’s a compelling and complex character.

Hurwitz is a superb mystery author. All the characters in this novel come across as authentic — several lovable, several hateful, several very funny. And the detail on every page could serve as an object lesson for students of writing. Hurwitz continually draws scenes with cinematic clarity. As a matter of fact, “Orphan X” is a good movie waiting to happen. (JK)

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Minotaur Press for review purposes.