So we’re always told that our crime genre protagonist must be someone for whom the reader can root. I mean, that’s Writing 101, right? Anyone who’s binged on a boxset may sense this received wisdom is under strain somewhat, thanks to Walter White, Frank Underwood, Tony Soprano, mostly everyone in Game Of Thrones. These are bad people, and they do bad things.
Anti heroes are well-established in television, but in crime fiction there’s perhaps been been a bit of a lag. In these morally ambiguous days, we’re starting to see the emergence of waves of more existential kinds of heroes – and heroines – and not before time. Assassins, gangsters, mysterious chancers.
With his mononymous protagonist Geiger, Mark Allen Smith takes the whole anti hero thing one step further. Geiger is a specialist in Information Retrieval – and IR is a euphemism for torture.
The Confessor is a straight sequel to The Inquisitor, using many of the same characters – I haven’t read the first one, but it was pretty simple to pick up the thread. In the first book, Geiger – who has an uncanny talent for knowing when people are telling porkies – was the best in the business at strapping people to chairs and getting them to spill the beans. When Geiger was ordered to torture a young boy, he was forced to confront his past and turned to the side of the angels.
This follow-up continues Geiger’s journey of redemption. The former torturer, now presumed dead, is minding his beeswax making furniture in Brooklyn – hell, he’s good with his hands – when an old adversary decides there’s unfinished business between them. Geiger is forced to travel to Paris for a final showdown.
It’s a tough call to get us to like Geiger, I can’t think of any profession held in more high dudgeon than torturing – except, perhaps, investment banking – and Allen doesn’t make it easy for himself. Geiger’s kind of cold and distant – and not one for conversation. He’s intense, enigmatic, damaged – he eats vegetables raw. He’s got this tragic back story involving his sadistic father – so he thinks about himself a lot. But Geiger’s a Pinocchio character. These books are all about how he’s learning to be human. He wants to be a better person – and as he’s a torturer I think it’s fair to say he’s starting from a low base.
To make it easier for us to empathise with him, Smith surrounds Geiger with people we definitely will like. There’s Ezra, the kid he saved in the first book, and Carmine his sanguine former mob boss, and Harry Boddicker, who’s his laconic handler, and if Harry thinks you’re okay, then you must be okay. Zanni is one of those default government operative ladies with a red hot mind and tight little body. Victor is a phlegmatic Frenchman.
And just in case we were in any doubt about who the good guy is, there’s Dalton, Geiger’s nemesis. Dalton is bonkers crazy. He’s obsessed with finding out why Geiger was so good at his job – an artiste, no less – and sets a trap for him. Those titles, The Confessor and The Inquisitor, suggest that Geiger is a big fan of the Spanish Inquisition, but actually, Geiger excels at psychological torture – which, I guess, makes him slightly more of a class act as torturers go. Dalton has no such finesse, he’s all brute force and pain, the kind of torturer who really gives the profession a bad name. Dalton has a pretty nifty use for a giant hornet.
Allen does enjoy chewing on a sentence, and I’d like to have seen a bit more forward momentum in the second act, but there’s a lot to like here. In a marketplace crammed wall-to-wall with detectives and pathologists and moody men with guns, it’s a refreshing change to meet someone with a rock-solid emotional journey and an interesting, um, job. I mean, if you met a torturer at the party, you’d be full of questions. You may not stick around to ask them, necessarily, you but you’d have plenty in your head, I’m sure.
There are a couple of wince-inducing scenes, for obvious reasons, but Smith knows he’s writing a mass-market entertainment, and keeps the short, sharp shocks to a minimum. There’s some kiss kiss bang bang, but you sense Smith is more interested in Geiger’s inner journey than he is with the action – Geiger’s traumatic past childhood is oddly mawkish – and the savage climax is satisfying, with Smith throwing in a terrific sleight of hand along the way.
Geiger’s violent journey in The Confessor is unusually touching, and a reminder that redemption comes in many strange forms.
Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy. I’m pleased to say that later in the week Mark Allen Smith will be giving us The Intel on Geiger, The Confessor and his writing regime!