Length: 354 pages, standard paperback font size, larger than standard paperback page size
During the bookstore visit that I’d mentioned in my review of Ravenor, I took some time to tour the bargain bins and ended up with this book, too. Now, modern day thrillers aren’t a genre that I have much experience with, but a quick bit of searching yielded a cavalcade of high reviews, so I decided to take a chance on it. If that line of reasoning sounds familiar, it’s because I’d mentioned a similar train of thought in my review of the Word Bearers Omnibus. And much like then, the Internet’s collective gestalt failed me. Granted, maybe the fact that it’d been discounted below its original discounted price should’ve warned me that something was up, but just like an author’s ability to generate sales isn’t necessarily indicative of their talent, neither is the price of their books (plus I’ve gotten physical books that didn’t suck at ebooks prices before, and well, if I’m going to take a pretty blind try at something, I’d prefer it to be something cheap).
I do have to give Hurwitz some credit, though. He had an extensive list of various experts who he’d consulted in the closing acknowledgements, and despite that, he still managed to open the story either by fucking up some basic first aid in a hilariously dangerous way or by writing it so poorly that it only seemed that way. I can’t say which, but either one is an accomplishment. Not a good accomplishment, mind you, but an accomplishment all the same.
See, at the start, protagonist Evan Smoak is going back to his apartment after having gotten a knife cut on his forearm while saving some random woman from some ambiguous predation. Now, given that Evan is supposed to be a super top secret black ops ace who went rogue in order to use his talents and training for good purposes rather than just following shadowy orders from a government that denies all knowledge of his existence (in other words, he’s Solid Snake, without the cloning and pro-peace terrorism […yet]), I think it’d be reasonable for him to have some basic first aid items in his truck. I mean, I’ve had a first aid kit compartment in every car I’ve owned, and nobody’s ever mistaken me for a secret agent, so it wouldn’t be suspicious enough to justify the lack as something Evan does to hide his secret identity. Given that I’m rambling on about this, it should be obvious that Evan doesn’t have any bandages in his truck. Instead, he used one of his socks as a tourniquet, and once it had stopped bleeding, he just took off the sock and covered it with his sweater’s sleeve. On his way up to his apartment, however, he runs into the old woman who’s the head of the building’s Homeowner Association, among the rest of a clunky introduction to some of the other residents. Granny’s got a fucking eagle claw grip, naturally, and she manages to break the wound open when she snatches his forearm. Now, despite being a shallow wound near the end of an extremity (i.e. something that shouldn’t bleed much, relatively) which is covered by a black sweater, Evan’s enough of a figurative hemophiliac that this causes a noticeable stain in the span of a less-than-ten floor elevator ride.
Can I take a moment here to mention that, when it gets noticed, Evan’s explanation for it is that it’s grape juice? Despite the fact that he didn’t have the stain just a moment earlier? I might’ve explained it as being from accidentally reopening a cut that I got from slipping and falling against the edge of a desk/door jamb/sink near the end of my working day which had stopped bleeding when I’d washed it off initially. You know, trying to build a lie with some elements of truth in it, which is exactly what Evan mentions repeatedly as the key to a good cover identity, instead of spewing obvious bullshit. Super spy!
Getting back to the point, just to emphasize that the wound is still bleeding significantly, when the old woman gives it another squeeze on her way out of the elevator, Evan has to wipe her fingertips off (without getting noticed, somehow) because they’d gotten bloody (which nobody else saw, somehow). Now, given that a squeeze in the lobby had his sleeve soaking wet by the tenth floor, the second squeeze on the tenth (where the old woman leaves the elevator) should have left the wound still bleeding by the time Evan reaches the twenty-first floor. And yet, when Evan gets to his apartment, can you guess what he does? No, it’s not putting a fucking bandage on. No, it’s not even washing and disinfecting the cut immediately. No, Evan gets himself some vodka, presumably because drinking liquor stimulates blood coagulation. Except for, you know, the fact that alcohol is a blood thinner. Super spy!
But wait, it gets better! After we can only imagine that he’s painting a red stripe to help guide his non-existent visitors all over the apartment, Evan finally washes the wound and decides that it’s not really bad enough to need the six or seven stitches he'd estimated it at earlier, so he closes it with superglue instead. Now, even giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he has medical grade superglue instead of potentially toxic dollar store cyanoacrylate, even I know that that’s something that should never be done while the wound is still bleeding. Sadly, Evan doesn’t end up losing a finger due to blocking some blood vessels, which would’ve been a great bit of foreshadowing for how often he makes stupid mistakes later on. Super! Fucking! Spy!
Perhaps Hurwitz thought it was obvious enough that the wound stopped bleeding in between eagle claw #2 and the vodka that he didn’t feel the need to mention it explicitly, but the fact that the sequence of events raises such questions in the first place is pretty bad.
Also, the wording of that sequence in the actual book (ref. pg. 16: “…he pinched the skin together and superglued it closed.”) implies that he pinched the wound shut first and then applied the glue, which doesn’t really make sense for a cut on a forearm as you could use only one hand to treat it, and he's explicit about having gotten the glue in the cut rather than just on it because he mentions that the skin will push the glue out of the cut as it heals. Maybe it’s proof of Evan’s mouth having enough dexterity to function as a spare hand. Maybe I’m just being excessively pedantic. But really, maybe Hurwitz should’ve just fucking written things more clearly to creating avoid the issue.
And speaking of things that are bad, let me bring up the annoying repeated brand name mentions. Evan’s phone is hardly ever just “Evan’s phone”, nor even “Evan’s black phone”, it’s his black RoamZone phone. Evan’s truck is hardly ever just “Evan’s truck”, it’s his Ford F-150. Evan’s vodka is hardly ever just “Evan’s vodka”, it’s his Jean-Marc XO vodka, made from French wheat that’s been distilled too many times and cleansed with countless charcoal filters. Dare to offer him some Absolut or Smirnoff, as one unfortunate character did, and Evan will be utterly aghast! What kind of uncultured barbarian do you take him for? Think you that someone who garnishes his own homemade fish fillets with a sprig of his own homegrown organic parsley would abase himself by consuming such bottled urine? Truly, that character should count her blessings that Evan didn’t strike her heathen head from her shoulders, as he no doubt learned to do while mastering the deadliest martial arts that the world has ever known. I mean, really, I was surprised that he didn’t have a brand name for his katana or his Turkish rug. And I’m not sure which of those is more surprising, since the katana was a masterwork that could have had a known crafter despite being made before the rise of consumerism and the rug was mentioned as “Turkish rug” pretty much every time that Evan was doing some meditating on it (which happened more often that you might expect, because meditation is so thrilling).
Look, I can understand mentioning brand names on occasion, either as a shorthand for a longer description (i.e. calling out a private jet as a Gulfstream G7 says a lot more about it than an author could do with any elegance, and in far less space) or because of some connotation associated with that brand (i.e. specifying that a particular group’s standard issue assault rifle is a Colt or an FN or a Kalashnikov tends to have implications about their legality, allegiances, and/or funding level). I don’t have an inherent problem with saying that Evan has a RoamZone phone, owns an F-150, or whatever else. Where it becomes a problem for me is when it’s mentioned so repeatedly and so unnecessarily that it becomes an eyesore. In fact, amusingly enough, when I did a search for “RoamZone” because I’d never heard of it before and wanted to understand the shorthand and/or connotations that it carried, the second result was someone blasting this book as being unreadable because of the constant brand name mentions.
The book is borderline unreadable, to be fair, but that’s hardly the only reason for it.
On that note, let’s talk about the characters. As I’ve said, Evan is basically a posh version of Solid Snake. I think the idea was to be a blend of Solid and James Bond, but rather than recreating a young Sean Connery, the result was a total snob who’s also rather incompetent. Even aside from the forearm cut incident, he overlooks various slips that made me do double takes while reading, only to chide himself later for making mistakes because of overlooking them. He’s supposed to be emotionally distant and to have been trained to resist sexual charms, yet he falls tongue/dick-first into two women who he has no good reason to, and he notices the figure of a third while she’s trying to kill him (though, to be fair, he also noticed the Charles Barkley-esque figure of a large man who was trying to kill him, too, so that last one was just due diligence that I’m picking on unfairly). Evan practices mindful meditation as a way of improving his memory, even though such mediation improves inferential memory (i.e. fake memories, where the person thought that they experienced more than they did due to contextual influences) rather than real memory.
Mind you, the rest of the cast isn’t much better. Most of the other residents of the apartment (oh, sorry, the Castle Heights apartment in the Wilshire Corridor area of Los Angeles) are nothing more than shallow background filler, and the only two who get enough attention to try being something more end up as a bog standard “single mom whose messy life contrasts with the stoic protagonist so much that he can’t help wanting to fuck her”-type and her caricature of an eight year old son (i.e. two characters who I’d wished had been left as shallow background filler). His former mentor was a bog standard “gruff father figure who just doesn’t verbalize how much he loves the protagonist and wants to train him to be a real human instead of a cold killer”-type. His main antagonist is obviously another Orphan agent who tended towards the “cold killer” side of things. What we see of the people who Evan helps are more cut-and-paste tropes designed to invoke sympathy with all the subtle grace of a waterlogged elephant corpse. Really, the only character who stood out in a good way was the female hitman who has no qualms about using her sex appeal as a tool, not so much because it was anything remotely original or memorable in and of itself, but because “femme fatale” is just a much more interesting archetype than any of the others. I dare say that I’ve done better takes on it plenty of times in my own writing (and perhaps my personal fondness for the archetype is why I hated her less than the others), but at the end of the day, that character was the least abominably ugly duckling in the whole brace of phenomenally ugly ducklings.
I haven’t really said anything about the plot, up to this point. Take that as a sign of just how weak it is. There aren’t any real surprises, at least not once I’d realized that it was all so obvious that even I’d be able to predict where things were going. The various blurbs on the back of the book call it thrilling, exciting, gripping, dizzying, and mind-blowing. I propose that the following people lead incredibly dull lives that they deserve to be ridiculed for:
David Baldacci, Tess Gerritsen, Jonathan Kellerman, Lee Child, Phillip Margolin, Robert Crais, Lisa (whose last name was cut off by the price sticker, for which she should be thankful)
I’m not going to dignify the plot with any further discussion.
Of course, since Hurwitz had to show off that he consulted with so many “experts”, there are regular deluges of Technobabble explaining how much of an awesome super spy Evan is. After the superglue debacle, I couldn’t be bothered to check against anything else that Hurwitz vomited from his pen/keyboard. However, I will say two things about it, just from my intuition. First, rather than pointing out that the number for Evan’s RoamZone phone (1-855-2-NOWHERE) has an extra digit and then Hand Waving it as being easy for people to remember while panicking, he could’ve just used the number 1-855-NOWHERE. After all, Evan’s moniker is “the Nowhere Man”, not “the To-Nowhere Man”, and fewer digits should make it even easier to remember. Second, while communicating by writing messages in an unsent draft email does indeed avoid transmitting the messages around the Internet, the drafts are still getting saved on a Google server somewhere (since it was gmail account, just to squeeze in a bit more excessive brand naming), so I rather doubt that it's the untraceable method that Evan claims it is. Super! Motherfucking! SPY!
Honestly, I can’t believe I put in the effort to write so much about why this book is complete garbage. It’s awful. I’m tempted to leave it behind when I leave the hotel that I’m writing this review from, despite being a packrat who holds onto other books that I hated, but for the fact that I’d have to pay an extra fee for trashing the room so badly if I did that. I got it for a price comparable to a cup of coffee, yet after reading it, I feel like I’m owed an F-150 for putting up with it long enough to read the whole piece of shit. It’s not even So Bad It’s Good. It’s just bad. Avoid it at all costs.
Length: 354 pages, standard paperback font size, larger than standard paperback page size