Review of Orphan X, by Gregg Hurwitz, Minotaur Books 2016

Reading Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X, which introduces Evan Smoak, a former agent of a government organization so secret it has no acronym, my thoughts turned not to Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, a comparison many reviewers have made, but to Eoin Colfer’s Artemus Fowl. When my son was a pre-teen, he and I read every volume of Colfer’s series of adventure novels centering on the exploits of Artemus, a pre-teen magician and “criminal mastermind.” Colfer described the series as “Die Hard with fairies.”

Orphan X is not Jason Bourne, not because the character Evan Smoak lacks any of the skill set of Bourne — Smoak possesses those skills and more — but because Gregg Hurwitz, like Eoin Colfer, is a writer’s writer. Robert Ludlum, for all the success of the Bourne trilogy, was a movie producer’s writer. The Bourne novels made terrific movies, but they are ordinary novels, more like movie treatments than fully-executed fiction.

Orphan X, though, is a fine novel, composed with a screenwriter’s ear for dialogue and a novelist’s eye for pacing and structure, a writer’s deft touch with language, character and scene. Gregg Hurwitz, had he made the choice, could have been an accomplished literary novelist, winner of prizes and read by — perhaps thousands. Instead, Hurwitz, to his credit, chose to become an adventure writer, whose work has been and will be read, heard, seen by millions. Hurwitz has written novels, movie scripts, and Batman comics. But Orphan X may represent his best work, Evan Smoak his most compelling character. If Artemus Fowl is “Die Hard with fairies,” Orphan X is Batman with an everyman’s secret identity, if everyman were trained in several esoteric martial arts and equally skilled  with military weapons and computer software.

If you enjoy thrillers, don’t miss this one.

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Review of Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother, by Sonia Navario, Random House 2006.

Mexico has a serious immigration problem.

Each year, half a million illegal immigrants, most of them under age, from Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, cross the border Mexico shares with Guatemala. They enter Chiapas state, home of El Chapo, the most dangerous, most lawless state in Mexico, to board freight cars on the long 1,500-mile journey up the central spine of Mexico toward the Rio Grande and attempted river crossings into the United States. The immigrants call the train El Tren de la Muerte—The Train of Death. Riding the train, the migrants endure beatings, rapes, theft, robbery, and kidnapping. Some lose limbs under the train wheels. Others are killed.

This non-fiction novel follows one seventeen-year-old boy, Enrique, who is on his way to try to reunite with his mother, Lourdes, who made the same trip successfully ten years earlier and now lives in North Carolina. The author, Sonia Navario, made portions of the trip herself to learn the stories of the men and women, boys and girls, who ride the trains to escape poverty and violence and to search for a better life.

Seven times, Enrique is caught by the migras, the Mexican federal migrant police, bussed back to the Guatemalan border with other train riders, and deported. (Today, the Obama administration gives Mexico millions of dollars of aid to support Mexico’s capture and deportation efforts, which send over 100,000 illegal migrants back to their homes annually). But on his eighth try, Enrique arrives in Nuevo Laredo, where he stays in a camp along the river and finds a “coyote,” a border escort, to take him across in return for payment of $1,200. Eventually, Enrique makes it across and pays for transportation to North Carolina for a bittersweet reunion with his mother and sporadic work.

Sonia Navario won two Pulitzer Prizes for a series of articles for the Los Angeles Times which she later expanded into this book. Enrique’s Journey is more personal narrative than political or sociological study, but perhaps for this reason, the book offers a useful beginning perspective tp anyone interested in understanding unlawful entry across the southern border of the United States. If you care to know more than demagogic politicians know about this issue, or more than they will publicly acknowledge, start with Enrique’s Journey.

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Book List — Recently Read and To Read

Hey. I just wanted to post a list of books, in no particular order, I’ve read in the past few months along with a few I’ve started or intend to start soon. Expect short reviews of all to be posted in the next few days.


Mean Town Blues, Sam Reaves

No Show, Simon Wood

Paying the Piper, Simon Wood

Slow Horses, Mick Herron

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Belfast Noir, Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville, eds.

Second Skin, Michael Wiley

The Bad Kitty Lounge, Michael Wiley

Don’t Look Back, Gregg Hurwitz

The Hollow Girl, Reed Farrell Coleman

Onion Street, Reed Farrell Coleman

Walking the Perfect Square, Reed Farrell Coleman

Blue Avenue, Michael Wiley

The White Lie, Philip Shirley

Blizzard, H.W. “Buzz” Bernard

Orphan X, Gregg Hurwitz

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, Francine Prose

Bear is Broken, Lachlan Smith

The Devil Wins, Reed Farrel Coleman (Robert Parker)

Richard Stark/Donald Westlake novels

 The Man with the Getaway Fact
    Nobody Runs Forever
    The Hunter
    Money for Nothing


Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario

Breaking Robert’s Rules, Lawrence E. Susskind and Jeffrey L. Cruikshank

Bringing Peace Into the Room, Daniel Bowling and David Hoffman

Africare, Penelope Campbell

The Perfect Kill, Robert B. Baer
To-read shelf:

Outline, Rachel Cusk

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Oh Don’t You Cry For Me, Philip Shirley

Center of Gravity, Laura McNeill

The Kill Clause, Greg Hurwitz



John le Carre, The Biography, Adam Sisman

White Collar, C. Wright Mills

The Infested Mind, Jeffrey Lockwood

Time No Longer, Patrick Smith

Empire of Cotton, a Global History, Sven Beckert

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The United States Supreme Court and the Oligarchs

How many times have you heard someone who feels wronged swear he or she will see justice done “even if I have to take this case all the way to the Supreme Court”?

Not so fast, my indignant friend.  The odds of any ordinary citizen having his or her grievance heard by the highest Court in the land may not be much higher than the chance of winning the Powerball lottery.  The business of getting an appeal heard by the Supreme Court (in legal terms, having the Court grant a petition for writ of certiorari, or “cert petition”) is big business.  Virtually all the seventy-five to eighty petitions the Court grants each year, out of the ten thousand or so filed, bear the signatures of a small number of elite lawyers who practice in large law firms with offices in Washington.

What is more, a Reuters study (referenced in a Christmas Day New York Times editorial), concluded that the single most important issue determining whether the Court granted a cert petition was not the type of issue or whether the circuit courts were split on the issue presented or whether a significant federal statute or constitutional principle was at stake.  No, the best predictor of whether the Court would grant a cert petition was the presence or absence of the signature of one of the fewer-than-seventy members of this informal Supreme Court bar club on the document.

The firms in which the members of this clubby group of lawyers hold partnerships represent almost exclusively, except for pro bono work, large corporate clients — the S&P 500 corporations and their largest privately-held counterparts.  And because of conflicts of interest, most of these firms disqualify themselves from representing plaintiffs in, say, environmental or employment disputes.

According to the New York Times article cited above, one former federal appeals judge, J. Micheal Luttig, has complained that the members of the Court and the elite advocates who appear before them have become “detached and isolated from the real world, ultimately at the price of the healthy and proper development of the law.”

Stunted development of the law isn’t the only price of the Court’s detachment.  At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln spoke eloquently of his “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  The dearest price of the Court’s isolation from the rest of us must surely be that government “of the people, by the people, for the people” has indeed perished from the United States.  Even at the highest level in the federal courts, which should serve as the people’s final place to have their say, and indeed most evidently there among the three branches of government, the United States has become an oligarchy where only the richest and most powerful corporations may have their voices heard.

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Are Traffic Cameras Dead?

The Wall Street Journal suggests that red light cameras may be coming to a full stop:  Can the Red Light Camera Be Saved?

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Yesterday’s post on the “right to remain silent” and the Fifth Amendment right not to be “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against [yourself]” may have strayed a little too far into the weeds of legal jargon.  In this blog I want sometimes to entertain; sometimes to explain; sometimes to inform, but never to bore.  That latter desire is one reason I don’t plan to write often about writing.

Other writers who blog seem focused on explaining their own creative processes.  They expose themselves to several risks: boring their readers; providing too much information (how exactly, is sausage made, again?), and worst of all, losing it.  Losing it in the sense that Ernest Hemingway meant it:  when you talk about it, you lose it (and if you think this is a mere abstraction, take a look at Tiger Woods’ tournament record before and after he wrote How I Play Golf.).  It’s a recurring theme in Hemingway.  To explain an experience is to lose its essence and maybe to lose the way the experience polishes the soul.  For example, in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, the hunting guide says:  “Doesn’t do to talk too much about all this. Talk the whole thing away. No pleasure in anything if you mouth it up too much.”

One blogger wrote that he started blogging because he wanted his nonfiction voice and his creative voice to merge.  I’m not sure why a writer would want to do that; maybe he doesn’t plan ever to write fiction in third person or write from the perspective of a female character or from the perspective of an “idiot,” as William Faulkner did in The Sound and the Fury.

Different strokes, I guess.  Hemingway might say that if you’re thinking too much about your narrative voice, you might lose it.  Sort of like what happens when a golfer thinks too much about his swing.

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What lawyers know (7): the right to remain silent

It’s an old criminal lawyers’ joke:  The client has confessed, and during the first interview, the lawyer asks why.  I knew I had the right to remain silent, says the client.  I just didn’t have the ability.

Today I ran across a Robert Reich diatribe against recent court decisions making insider trading cases more difficult to prove.  (It is my view that insider trading should be legal, but I’ll save that discussion for later.)

Among the many comments on the Reich article were a substantial number suggesting that the insider trading defendants whose convictions were overturned on appeal were male, and that this must reflect a bias against women, since Martha Stewart went to federal prison, don’t you know, for insider trading.

Wrong.  The government did not pursue a criminal insider trading case against Martha Stewart.  Instead, she was indicted for, and found guilty of, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and two counts of making false statements to federal agents.  As they say, it’s not the crime; it’s the coverup.  Lengthy interviews prior to arrest are common in white-collar criminal matters.  When she spoke with federal investigators, Martha Stewart tried to explain away the insider trading issue, and a jury ultimately decided that in so doing, she lied.  Lying to a federal agent is a standalone crime which does not require the person being questioned to have been arrested, to have committed any preceding crime, or to be under oath.

The United States Supreme Court held in Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370 (2010), that in order to invoke the right to remain silent after arrest and after the Miranda warning, a criminal defendant must explicitly state that he is relying on that and may not do so by merely remaining silent.  Otherwise, any later statements may be used at trial.

A recent California Supreme Court decision implied that this Fifth Amendment right and the “right to remain silent” aren’t the same and held that silence in certain circumstances may be admissible as evidence of guilt.  In People v. Tom, S202107, Defendant Richard Tom sat his girlfriend’s car and in the back of a police car for two hours after the car he was driving broadsided another car, severely injuring two persons and killing another.  He was later read his Miranda rights after being taken to a police station for alcohol blood level testing.  During this course of events, Tom never inquired as to the health of the accident victims.  The Court held that this silence could be used against Tom by the prosecutor:  “[U]se of a defendant‘s postarrest, pre-Miranda silence is not barred by the Fifth Amendment in the absence of custodial interrogation or a clear invocation of the privilege. . . .”

U.S. citizens hold the Fifth Amendment right not to be compelled to testify against themselves at all times, unless the right is waived.  If you desire to invoke that right and your right to remain silent, you must clearly say so.  But if you lack the ability to exercise these rights during any contact with investigators or police officers, make sure that every statement you make is undeniably true.


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What lawyers know (6)

As an addendum to the previous post, a driver stopped by police is not required to consent to a search when a police officer asks for the driver’s consent.  If the driver does consent, he or she may have waived his Fourth Amendment rights, and objecting to any evidence seized during the search will be substantially more difficult.  See, generally, this Wikipedia article on consent searches.

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What lawyers know (5)

This week, in Heien v. North Carolina, the United States Supreme Court held that evidence discovered by a police officer during a search of an automobile can be admissible as evidence during a later trial even when the police officer’s initial reason for the traffic stop was based on an incorrect understanding of the law.  The Court did note, however, that the officer’s error must be “reasonable.”  In this case, the officer made the initial stop because the car in which the defendant was riding had a faulty brake light.  No North Carolina law made this condition illegal, but the officer believed that such a law did exist.  The car’s occupants gave the officer permission to search the car, and the officer found a bag of cocaine belonging to the defendant, who was subsequently convicted on a charge of attempted drug trafficking.  This ruling extends a long line of Supreme Court cases giving more deference to police when they conduct searches after a traffic stop.

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NASA and your drone airliner

Has NASA taken the first step toward airliners without any human pilots? (may require login).

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