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Coming Out of the Fire

By Adam Meyer

Former assassin Evan Smoak—a.k.a. Orphan X—has dedicated his life to helping people who can’t solve their problems through the system, and his latest assignment is saving a young man named Max Merriweather from a deadly killer—and a mysterious conspiracy.

As portrayed in Gregg Hurwitz’s latest novel, INTO THE FIRE, Max is a disappointment to his father and estranged from his family.  So when he finds himself in possession of a secret letter from his murdered cousin, he turns to Smoak out of sheer desperation.

Although Smoak commits to helping Max, he has mixed feelings about his latest client.  As Hurwitz himself explains, “Max Merriweather, he’s beat up, he seems like a loser, yet he’s fundamentally a good guy and you sense that he’s just down on his luck and someone’s had their foot on his neck his whole life.”

That sense of being kept down is something Smoak can relate to.  “He was the smallest kid in a foster home,” Hurwitz says. “He was bullied and banged up, he’s not the biggest guy like Reacher, he’s not the suavest, most handsome guy, like Bond. So for him to complete a mission, he has to bring the totality of who he is.”

This three-dimensional perspective on Smoak is what makes INTO THE FIRE so compelling.  Smoak’s skillset is formidable—whether he’s wielding a Benelli combat shotgun or outwitting a group of Armenian mobsters, he proves his mettle.  However, when it comes to dealing with day-to-day life, Smoak is no superhero, and that was central to Hurwitz’s initial concept of the character.

Hurwitz (right) with Lincoln Rhyme creator Jeffery Deaver at last year’s St. Louis County Library Suspense Night.

“Part of me was like, ‘I need to go among ordinary people because what a fun thing to have it be that he’s Jason Bourne, but is now undone trying to talk to a single mom by the mail slots,’” he says.

In INTO THE FIRE, for example, Evan finds that escaping from a deadly dogfighting ring is one thing, but trying to fend off an elderly neighbor who wants him to bring snacks to the next homeowners association meeting is another.

This is the contradiction at the heart of Orphan X’s character, and what makes this both a breakneck thriller and a fascinating character study.

“He’s a figure who I think of as sort of like he’s got his face up to the glass looking in at people leading ordinary lives that he himself can never lead,” says Hurwitz.  “And so what he does instead is, he does everything he possibly can to preserve that life for other people.”

This intense focus on the psychology of Evan Smoak helps explain why it took Hurwitz so long to launch the Orphan X novels. “This series feels like it’s been the culmination of my career in a way because I had the notion for this, and then I kept putting it on a back-burner and I wrote another book and then another book and then another,” he says. “I kept waiting.”

What the veteran novelist and screenwriter was waiting for was a protagonist who would feel fully three-dimensional.

Hurwitz speaks at 2019’s Tucson Festival of Books. The annual event, held on the University of Arizona campus, features hundreds of authors and attracts more than 130,000 book lovers.

“I really wanted to figure out a character who felt like he was sufficiently unique to be introduced on the bookshelf with all these other characters that we love, like, you know, Jack Reacher and Joe Pike and James Bond and Jason Bourne,” Hurwitz says. “I didn’t want to just do it until I had a really clear handle on what all those dynamics were.”

There’s also the fact that Hurwitz is digging into his own psyche as he shows the character evolving over what is now five books and counting.  “I think there’s an overlap that even I wasn’t aware of between Evan Smoak and myself, and not the flattering stuff, it’s the bad stuff, and that’s the part that I think people relate to,” Hurwitz says. “There’s a way I think I’m laid bare in these books that I’m not necessarily in some of my earlier work.”

Bringing some of himself to the Orphan X novels helps Hurwitz ground these books in reality. Then again, so does his intensive research.

Hurwitz signs advance copies of the latest Orphan X thriller, INTO THE FIRE, out this month from Minotaur Books.

“I have a great field of experts who make me seem brighter than I am,” Hurwitz says, admitting that, like Orphan X, he knows a little bit about many subjects.  “And so I have a rough handle, but I’ll pick up the phone and call a mixed martial arts fighter who I trained with, if I have a question there, or I’ll call a former Green Beret sniper or a Navy SEAL sniper if I need that scene.”

Even though this latest Orphan X novel delivers plenty of what returning readers want, from breath-taking action to the chance to revisit favorite characters—like Joey, Smoak’s surrogate daughter and a brilliant hacker—Hurwitz spent many years writing standalone thrillers. And he still brings that mentality to this series.

“I like the notion of constructing different whole types of narratives almost with each book,” he explains. “So it’s not like in the series that the phone rings and off he goes—that’s not how they work. There’s different ways into them, there’s different ways out. They’re structured differently, the types of antagonists and the themes I’m exploring are wide-ranging. The types of obstacles, whether internal or external, are different.”

For Hurwitz’s latest project, he is taking off his novelist’s hat to adapt his Orphan X series for television. Balancing various jobs is a challenge, but one that he relishes.

Hurwitz signs copies of the fourth Orphan X novel, Out of the Dark, at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“I had a great piece of advice early in my career,” he says. “I remember James Patterson came out to an event in Long Beach, and I was a kid, I had maybe one or two books out, and I said, ‘Did you write on the plane out?’ He said, ‘Always.’

“He said, ‘How about you?’ And I had my precious answer, I was like, ‘No, I need my desk and my space and I have my thesaurus and I need my American Heritage third edition.’ And he looked at me and he goes, ‘Learn.’”

As his days have grown more full, it’s advice that Hurwitz has taken to heart. “I’ve landed in New York in the middle of a scene and caught a cab to a hotel or to a meeting where I’m typing in the cab. And so it was a very strong indication of, like, ‘Don’t be precious, this is work. Figure it out.’”

With a resourcefulness that Evan Smoak might admire, that’s exactly what Gregg Hurwitz has done.