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Gregg Hurwitz: The Program

 

Crescent Blues Book Views William Morrow (Hardcover), ISBN: 0-06-053040-5

Book: gregg hurwitz,  the program
Your local bookstore is piled high with novels that, however sleekly and professionally they may serve their purpose as nail-bitingly suspenseful thrillers, offer only empty-headed entertainment. This shouldn't be considered a criticism: they achieve superbly what they set out to do -- make you read far later into the night than you should. Thereafter, of course, you forget all about them…with the eventual result, after you've read a bunch of such entertainments in a row, that you face the embarrassment of picking one of them up and being unable to remember whether you've read it or not.

Nothing could be further from the case with the suspense novels of Gregg Hurwitz. Not only are they first-rate thrillers, brilliantly eliciting all the requisite pulse-pounding, but that they have subtexts -- agendas, even -- which rigorously follow through the profounder implications of an ethical or other premise. In Hurwitz's previous novel, The Kill Clause, protagonist Tim Rackley, unjustly ousted from the US Marshals Service, falls into the hands of a clique dedicated to inflicting merited capital punishment upon perceived scum who escaped justice through the exploitation of a flawed and/or corrupt judicial system, which the clique regards as over-liberal.

So does the embittered Rackley, and he carries out a few "executions" on the clique's behalf. But then doubts set in, especially when he becomes convinced of one of the targets' innocence. Eventually, he discovers that clique members with a reprehensible secret scheme of their own manipulated him into committing murder. The novel's net effect is to offer a critique of popular attitudes toward capital punishment: Rackley comes to the realization that the death penalty is as vile as the crimes it purports to avenge.

In The Program the seems to focus on our preconception that people's religious or quasi-religious beliefs, however asinine, should be respected -- should be sacrosanct as a personal matter, and thus immune from criticism. The flaw in such apparently laudable tolerance is that those beliefs may in themselves be damaging or indeed dangerous to others. In course of exploring this territory through the medium of Rackley's penetration of a viciously grasping cult, The Program, in order to try to rescue from it the daughter of a wealthy Hollywood producer, Hurwitz provides us with an astonishing amount of fascinating information on the techniques used by such cults first to snare and indoctrinate their victims, then -- psychologically, physically, or both -- to insure that said victims never to escape.

Fantastically rich movie producer Will Henning, whose daughter Leah vanished into The Program, provides the impetus for Rackley's return to the Marshals Service. At first Rackley resists, resenting (as he should) the fact that Henning's wealth alone gives the man extra-legal influence. But Rackley soon finds himself caught up in the attempt to counter the devastation the cult creates as it uses indoctrination techniques to separate the gullible from their worldly goods.

The Program's leader, the carefully self-recreated Messiah figure T.D. Betters, surrounded by "handmaidens" and thuggish, vicious bodyguards, appears untouchable Under U.S. law, those who lose everything they own to the cult, including most of all their souls, are supposedly adults of sound mind acting of their own free will. Leah, the initial reason for Rackley's infiltration of the cult, becomes instead -- even while he emotionally bonds with the young woman -- the tool he might be able to use to bring about the cult's downfall.

Perhaps the most chilling and memorable sections of this always absorbing novel are those in which Rackley subjects himself to the cult's induction sessions. Rackley believes that he will suffer no lingering effects because of the strength of his own will and the tuition given to him by a broken man who succeeded in escaping the cult, albeit at the cost of nearly destroying himself. But Rackley finds his confidence in his own resilience may well be misplaced…

Of course, the cult possesses far more lethal methods at its disposal to keep its adherents in line, as Rackley eventually discovers. Even then, because of the inhibiting nature of the laws pertaining to claimed religions, however false, morally obscene and exploitative these may be, it proves difficult to find a way of pinning the murders to the actual perpetrators, the cult's leaders.

As with The Kill Clause before it, The Program delivers the full-scale edge-of-the-seat-emotional-rollercoaster experience one demands from the very best suspense thrillers. But it's the gritty fiber of its ethico-philosophical underpinning that makes it an unforgettable novel, one that merits rereading. This is la crème de la crème indeed.

John Grant

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