Geiger’s mind was sent reeling away from the dark forest, defying the vision’s gravity and seeking refuge beyond it. But what came before him was a floating curtain, and then, as the curtain parted, it revealed the long shelf carrying all his session books: the black binders, the hundreds of Joneses, the thousands of pages filled with strategies and methods, reactions and conclusions. Geiger could see the faces of his subjects, he could hear every epithet and plea ever uttered, every sound a human can make in fear or pain. Confronting him was a compendium of the darkest of man’s arts—and a garish portrait of a monster that now, for the first time, he recognized as himself.
Geiger: Information Retrieval specialist. Interrogator. A torturer of a kind; a man with a strict moral code—something that cannot necessarily be said of his contemporaries. Mark Allen Smith’s first novel, The Inquisitor is a brisk thriller that hedges its success on an unconventional protagonist with a mysterious past.
In the off-the-books world of information retrieval, Geiger is a known quantity on a very short list. He’s efficient. He gets what he needs, and he does it without bringing extensive physical harm to his subjects. Mental anguish however… that’s an issue for another day. Geiger gets the call when the Jones—the individual he is hired to withdraw information from—needs to be broken without leaving bodily evidence to be mopped up in the aftermath. He lives a restricted, Spartan lifestyle, and adheres to a personal code of ethics. His past is a mystery, even to himself, but his talents are without question. When a not-entirely-on-the-level case is offered to him, Geiger is forced to decide whether or not to deviate from his code and interrogate a child—a young pre-teen named Ezra. Should he refuse, the information retrieval will fall to another in his line of work—a notoriously blunt instrument named Dalton.
The Inquisitor doesn’t try to hide its hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold roots: Geiger, though violent and at times highly unstable, is our man on the inside, the good guy with the shady past whose sins—dark though they may be—are not beyond absolution. Smith isn’t interested in challenging us with a thoroughly detestable main character; he wants us to sympathize with and, in time, understand Geiger’s behaviour. His past, his motivation, and his abilities create a wholly sympathetic social outcast with precious few confidants in his closed-off world. Yes, he has certain unscrupulous connections and has done some unforgivable things in his career, but his code, which removes him from his role as interrogator and installs him as Ezra’s protector, is noble and unshakable.
While Geiger is certainly an intriguing, Jason Bourne-esque personality, the book’s remaining characters run the gamut from the hard-on-his-luck “best friend” and accomplice, to by-the-numbers mobsters and are-they-or-aren’t-they government agents, and one very off-kilter sister, whose presence provides the narrative with a certain amount of pathos. The most fascinating of the side characters, interestingly enough, is Geiger’s vile counterpart, Dalton. The pairing of the two in the book’s third act offers the story’s strongest character development. Dalton is what Geiger could be, were he to completely discard his code of ethics.
The Inquisitor is at times an uneven experience. While I appreciated the lean and energized narrative (with its obvious allusions to Wikileaks), the quick character turns—the willingness to abandon a career so dramatically when ethically challenged—left me feeling winded. It was as if an earlier novel developing Geiger’s modes and methods of operation had been written and discarded in favour of what at times feels more like the second chapter of a series, and not an introduction. Though his interaction with Ezra works to humanize Geiger, it feels as though we’ve missed out on an opportunity to further explore his interactions with other Information Retrieval specialists. Granted this could be done in the future with prequels or flashbacks, should Geiger become the star of his own series, but as a singular instalment I found myself more fascinated with the implications and details of his dark industry than with any late-in-the-game character revelations.
In spite of these reservations and a forced, Friday the 13th hand-out-of-the-water climax that falls into slightly comic territory, The Inquisitor is still an exciting page turner, and I’d love to know where Smith takes the character from here. I just hope the road to Geiger’s salvation is a little rockier and more challenging from here on out.