By the Book: Latest Ophan X installment is a trip to the theme park

·3 min read
Author Gregg Hurwitz.
Author Gregg Hurwitz.

“Can you save a bad man?” That’s the question Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X asks in “Dark Horse,” the latest in the series, due out Feb. 8. And if the answer is ‘yes,’ then was the man really bad?

These questions apply equally to the South Texas drug lord that Evan Smoak, aka Orphan X, agrees to help and to Evan himself.

Those who do not know the series will be caught up quickly in this seventh installment. Smoak was an off-the-books government assassin who left the program and is now pursued by his former trainers and handlers. He lives by his own 10 commandments and helps those who have nowhere else to turn.

Aragón Urrea is the patrón (boss) of Eden, Texas, and of an elaborate, worldwide, high-tech drug and money laundering operation. His 18-year-old daughter has been kidnapped by a ruthless rival gang, and he is willing to give everything he has to get her back. And everything is just what Smoak asks of him.

The impossibly-wealthy, impossibly fit and fast-thinking Smoak is part Jason Bourne, part Batman. He has a multitude of identities and safe houses as well as nearly-magical technology readily available to him. His untraceable, unhackable phone has nanosuction backing that makes it stick to any surface he throws it at, so that he can watch a hologram of his phone call. Oh, and he MacGyvers a mask out of a plastic coke bottle and some trash so that he can enter a burning building to save some burning junkies.

Orphan X books are pure escapism, akin to a visit to the theme park. It’s no wonder that Hurwitz is a best-selling author. The prose is tight and the descriptions are detailed and quite good at creating the atmosphere of danger and desperation in South Texas and Mexico, where the story is set. At more than 400 pages, the book is still a quick read as it is loaded with action and suspense. The short chapters and alternating settings give the story a cinematic feel.

However, the conversation between Smoak and his protégé, Joey, I found grating. They are so cute that it’s annoying. But that is just a small drawback. She is, after all, a 16-year-old computer genius, maybe the most realistic character in the book.

The other characters are typical of the fantasy-thriller genre. Good guys, bad guys, innocents. Hurwitz tries to avoid this trope by making Smoak painfully aware that he is both good and bad. Drug lord Urrea is both brutal to those that violate his rules (rapists) and generous with his family and the townspeople that he takes a patrician responsibility for.

On the other hand, the villain, Mexican crime boss Raúl Montesco, is unnecessarily cruel and ruthless. He belittles his own son, holds women in a cage to be sex-trafficked, and feeds those who offend him (even accidentally) to his “pet” lion. He is the bad man, utterly unredeemable.

So, maybe you can’t save a “bad man,” but you might be able to make a man that is both good and bad a little less bad.

The conversation

If you have a recommendation, a question, want to add to the conversation, or read more reviews, please visit my blog at ByTheBookBTX.blogspot.com or email ByTheBookBTX@gmail.com.

Bennett is a retired English and journalism teacher. She serves on the Bastrop Public Library Board.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Book review: Latest Ophan X installment is a trip to the theme park