Tidewater Review - November 2012

The Inquisitor
reviewed by
Anne Stinson

The Inquisitor by Mark Allen Smith. Henry Holt & Co., New York. 322 pages. $27.

“The Inquisitor” is not only a reference to the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition, those diabolical methods of torture to force confessions of heresy during the Middle Ages, but it’s also the title of the main character in this disturbing novel. In as brief a category as this critic can place it, “it’s the kind of book that grabs the reader by the throat and won’t let go.” It is no exaggeration to warn the easily spooked reader that reading this before going to bed is to invite terrifying dreams.
Okay. Don’t say you weren’t warned. It’s only a novel, for goodness sake (although goodness has nothing to do with it).
The Inquisition of history began in the 13th century with harsh trials devised to guard religion. It’s not a practice that modern civilized man would use. Or is it? If not for religion, could terror/pain be a useful tool to protect national security? Or maybe cripple criminal groups?
Smith’s Inquisitor goes by the name “Geiger.” That’s it. No first name and no last name. Just Geiger. His line of business is IR. That stands for information retrieval, he explains. It boils down to making someone talk, someone who needs a bit of persuasion to spill the beans.
Geiger has a great talent working for him; he can tell instantly if a person is lying. If a client needs to get the lowdown on secret information, Geiger’s the man to contact. His category of expertise is not listed in the Yellow Pages.
His career demands a low profile. Nobody knows where he lives, what his background holds, his age or his real name. Only one person knows his cell phone number. Harry is Geiger’s go-to, the only person who ever calls Geiger. He’s a former newspaper writer whose alcoholism caused him to be demoted so often his final firing came when even the obituary columns couldn’t rely on him.
Geiger rescued Harry when the drunk was being clobbered by a gang of toughs in Central Park at midnight. Since then, Harry has been sober for years and has a valuable skill for Geiger’s business. Composing obits for the newspaper taught Harry to accumulate lots of information about the deceased in a brief amount of time. Geiger uses Harry’s reports on wannabe customers and their targets to decide if he will accept their cases.
Geiger is selective. He will not consider grilling a child. When pressure is required to get a victim to talk, Geiger would rather resort to persuasion of a gentler type rather than outright torture. Fear, he knows, is as persuasive as pain.
In the New York area, Geiger has only one competitor for the “make ’em squeal” trade. The other IR is Dalton. He is cruel to the core and has neither conscience nor compassion. Most of his challenges don’t survive the interrogations.
There are very few people who have actually spoken to Geiger. There’s Harry, who shields him from almost everyone, and Carmine Delanotte, a crime boss who has pointed a few jobs Geiger’s way. Carmine likes Geiger’s techniques – unlike Dalton’s. Geiger never creates a corpse that might stir up an investigation.
There’s one more personal acquaintance on the list. Geiger has a psychiatrist, a doctor who treats him for violent migraine headaches. Geiger has blanked out something dreadful from his youth, Dr. Martin Corley thinks, and he feels that he’s close to finding out what it is and treating it.
The whole plot revolves around Geiger’s new assignment – a hurry-up job to nail the thief who just stole a painting from a private collection. Harry makes a quick run-down on the scant information available and contacts Geiger with a “thumbs up.”
Why didn’t the art collector call the police about the theft? Geiger thinks, most likely, the painting is illegally owned, the prize of an earlier heist. At any rate, Geiger takes the job, fairly sure this will be a simple quicky job.
Biiiiig mistake! The whole exercise is conducted to extract the truth. And truth erupts like thunder, even when it’s not the truth for the current quest.
Among the jolts of terror – the thieves attempt to snatch the art collector, but bumble and pick up his 12-year-old son, whom they transport to Geiger’s pick-up car. On delivery, Geiger realizes that the object of his art is only an innocent kid. He’s dealing with some very rough customers who insist that the kid tell where his father is hiding the missing painting. Immediately, things get very messy.
Along with the ensuing chaos, the kid is saved, but Geiger’s old nemesis, the migraine headache, returns filling his head with the horrors of his childhood drama.
Harry fares no better, with a bugaboo unsolved from his pre-alcoholic days. Worst of all, the bad guys trap Geiger and turn him over to Dalton for brain-picking.
Smith’s conclusion to this fetid tale is done with exactly the right mixture of nightmare and subtlety in a climax, a tour de force marked like a Fourth of July fireworks finale, which is where it is staged.
Now the reader may breathe.
This powerful novel is Smith’s first. Mind you, he had a raft of earlier experiences that were close to his labors on the book. For many years he worked as a screenwriter for television and movies, as well as being an investigative news producer and a documentary filmmaker.
Attention, amateur novelists, for a word or two of advice! No novice he, Smith was wise to have put the book under the expertise of professional critics. His editor and agents made sure the final draft was polished to its present sheen. Smith’s overseers urged him to rewrite five separate drafts before it was ready to be published. The result is that something that was probably very good after the first draft became something wonderful.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.