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As a special treat from the publisher of The Inquisitor, you can listen to a clip from the Macmillan audiobook version here.

At the core of this book lies our awkward relationship with the use of the unpleasant method of torture to achieve a putative value: the truth. Indeed, so convoluted are our feelings in this regard that the author can not remain faithful to his stated views on the subject.

Mr. Smith has said that he regards torture as immoral, but the hero of his first novel is a torturer. Geiger arrived in New York City with no memory of his childhood but soon recognized that he had one great gift, the ability to tell when someone was lying. Through one of many credulity straining plot twists, he managed to get hired by a local mob boss to serve as his information retrieval specialist, or, less euphemistically, his torturer.

Of course, since the novel requires that we sympathize with Geiger, he does his questioning without using extreme physical violence and adheres to his own code of ethics, which seeks to minimize the risk that one of his subjects (or Joneses, as he calls them) will die under questioning and he refuses to interrogate children. Likewise, because he can always tell when someone is not telling the truth, Geiger never tortures anyone "innocent." While these conceits are necessary to the architecture of the novel, they are sufficiently implausible as to distance the story from the very issues that the author thinks he's raising.

While we get more backstory as the plot goes along, all we or Geiger know of his past at first is that he appears to have been a subject of torture himself, as indicated by a series of cut marks on his legs. Recently he's begun seeing a psychiatrist, Dr, Martin Corley, to help deal with the migraine inducing dreams/flashbacks that send him to a mirrored closet where he lies naked and cranks classical music as a means of escape. Corley is nearly as damaged as Geiger though, tormented by his wife walking out on him and seemingly a potential victim of early onset Alzheimer's. Then there's Geiger's partner, former New York Times reporter, Harry Boddicker, who's as gifted at retrieving information from the digital cloud as Geiger is at retrieving it from humans. Boddicker too is a haunted man, which has driven him to the bottle and out of work in the past. His mystery is tied to a schizophrenic sister he takes care of.

The action of the novel concerns a case that violates one of Geiger's rules. A 12-year-old boy is delivered for interrogation, but Geiger decides to liberate him instead. Thus begins a chase involving our protagonists, the boy's Julian Assaunge-like father, government agents, and one of Geiger's peers, the torturer Dalton, who is (theoretically) not limited by any qualms regarding the use of physical violence.

Mr. Smith drives the story relentlessly enough that it's hard not to get caught up in it and easy not to think about any of the question it raises. Eventually, as is the way of such things, there comes the over-the-top climax, replete with children in danger, bad guys turned soft, mad women on the loose, death-defying escapes, and so forth. Once you're reading fast enough you may forget to think about what's really going on.

Suffice it to say, a book where a torturer is the hero, and where that hero's use of torture is always benign, can hardly be anti-torture in any meaningful sense. Left undeveloped is the connection between Geiger's use of torture, Corley's use of psychoanalysis, and the father's use of (Wiki)leaked information all to reveal truth.

We live, nowadays, in a revelatory culture. Our lives are on display in social media. Our television dial is populated by "reality" shows. The private lives of politicians and celebrities are considered journalistic fair game. Hackers are hellbent on exposing any information that anyone tries to keep secret. And we have had to resort to torture, after an extended hiatus, in the war on terrorism. Whether or not, as Geiger believes, truth is a beautiful thing, we act as if we believe it should always be exposed. A fascinating book could be written about whether this is actually the case, or whether we might be better served by a greater skepticism about the usefulness of this sort of comprehensive exposure. But this not that book. It is, instead, a very professionally done and genuinely exciting thriller that, for all its ambition, does not withstand deeper thought.


Grade: (B)



See also:

Mark Smith Links:

    -BOOK SITE: The Inquisitor (MacMillan: Henry Holt)
    -INTERVIEW: A Sympathetic Torturer: PW Talks with Mark Allen Smith (Bob Hahn, Oct 07, 2011, Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of The Inquisitor b y Mark Allen Smith (Kirkus Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of The Inquisitor (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of The Inquisitor (Backlisted)
    -REVIEW: of The Inquisitor (Steve Donoghue, Open Library)
    -REVIEW: of The Inquisitor (Now is Gone)
    -REVIEW: of The Inquisitor (Linda Morefield, Washington Independent Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of The Inquisitor (Star Ledger)

Book-related and General Links: