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Book Review: The Inquisitor

The Inquisitor

by Mark Allen Smith

Henry Holt, 2012

The main character of Mark Allen Smith’s debut novel The Inquisitor (which is as ready for its TV series adaptation as if it were written specifically with that in mind – and given the success of such lovable-rogue shows as “Dexter” and “Burn Notice” and “White Collar,” that approach isn’t entirely unthinkable) is an enigmatic man named Geiger. As his name (rather too facilely) implies, Geiger is a sensitive instrument of detection – not radiation in his case but rather deception: he’s a walking lie detector. And although this must have made the high school dating scene even more excruciating than normal, it comes in very handy in Geiger’s profession: he’s a freelancer torturer specializing in “information retrieval” – that is, non-lethal non-maiming coercion. His subjects are offered up by their companies, their employers, their enemies – they get screened through Geiger’s friend and business associate Harry, they get measured against Geiger’s own personal criteria (he prefers non-lethal jobs, and he never ‘works’ on children), and then, once he and his victim are alone in a room, taciturn, migraine-prone “implacable” Geiger becomes a regular Chatty Cathy:

 “Its a beautiful thing – truth. Man’s only perfect creation. And I know it when I hear it. It’s not that I’m particularly intuitive or perceptive, but I’ve heard so many lies that I can tell when the truth comes out. … Toscanini said he could tell if one string on one violin in a whole orchestra was out of tune. He didn’t have perfect pitch, but he’d listened to so many millions of notes that he could instantly tell what was true and what wasn’t. So, Matthew – don’t lie to me.”

The book’s opening chapters feature a good deal of this baroque silliness, which has about as much resemblance to actual professional torturers as Hannibal Lecter does to actual serial killers – and is equally objectionable on a simple ethical level: are we really so depraved, the reader might well ask, that we can have such villains served up for our admiration? Are we really so crass that all we need in order to think a monster cool is for that monster to name-drop Toscanini (or, in Lecter’s case, Marcus Aurelius)?

Serial killers are aberrational enough to get some kind of pass – who cares if an author is gilding the lily about a creature as rare as a lawn fairy? But torturers are something else entirely; in the wake of Abu Ghraib and Private Lynndie England, there’s nothing theoretical or hypothetical about them, and nothing equivocal either. After all, serial killers, like vampires and tornadoes, can occasionally wipe out people who richly deserve wiping out – but torture is tainted as a method, regardless of results. We’ve seen torturers; in America, we’ve had to explain to ourselves the grotesque internal cramp that comes from seeing torturers wearing U.S. military uniforms. There isn’t any way 21st century readers should be able to countenance a torturer-as-hero.

The Inquisitor doesn’t work hard enough on these issues, and maybe Mark Allen Smith – a veteran Hollywood screenwriter, for good and ill – considers such work outside the purview of his storyteller’s brief. On one level he’s entirely justified – the most important level: The Inquisitor is an absolute delight to read, propulsive and smart and sometimes almost lyrical. When Geiger’s not waxing poetic to his helpless clients (“you’re down a well,” “you’re a lonely little bird,” and so on), the book’s prose is as good as that of any thriller you’ll read this year. Our author has thought a lot about his characters, and he serves them up with fine insight:

Geiger was an apostle, a slave to the specific. He was constantly breaking down, distilling, and defining parts of the whole, because in IR – information retrieval – the details were crucial. His goal was to refine the process to an art, which was why every single thing that happened from the moment Geiger walked into the room had its own degree of significance and required recognition. Each facial expression; each spoken word and silence; each tic, glance, and movement. Give him fifteen minutes in the room with a Jones and nine out of ten times he would know what the reaction to a particular action would be before the Jones made it: fear, defiance, desperation, bravado, denial. There were patterns, cycles, behavioral refrains.

None of which addresses the aforementioned ethical issues, but Smith avoids them in any case by getting Geiger out of the game as quickly as possible: a new client insists he torture a teenage boy for information, and something about the job crystallizes every misgiving Geiger has ever had about ‘the life’ – which he abruptly decides to quit, much to Harry’s surprise:

Harry had become a moon in a steady orbit around Geiger, dependent on and secure in the man’s gravitational force, so experiencing a shift in Geiger’s axis of rules brought with it something vertiginous. Seeing Geiger do the unexpected was like watching the Statue of Liberty wink at him.

An improbable, almost parental relationship develops between Geiger and the boy, Ezra, and it’s paralleled by Harry’s own trials with his trouble sister Lily – a parallel so lazily mechanical that, again, it ought to offend – and is again saved from doing so by Smith’s narrative zeal and sensitivity to little throwaway moments, as when Harry takes Lily to his favorite diner and introduces her to the waitress:

 They both looked at Lila. A sparrow had landed on the windowsill outside and Lily was watching it watch her. Every time it cocked and recocked its tiny head, Lily did the same, as if conversing in a silent avian language.

Naturally, Geiger’s defection with the boy aligns some very nasty people against him, and the book unfolds in a clockwork-precise adventure pattern no less enjoyable for being a bit on the predictable side. Readers who can reconcile themselves to a reformed torturer-as-hero will by entirely satisfied by The Inquisitor (and eagerly await another book from Smith). Readers who were OK with an unreformed torturer-as-hero have deeper problems than any book can fix.