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Gregg Hurwitz is full of thrilling, erudite contradictions

Gregg Hurwitz is full of thrilling, erudite contradictions
Aurthor Gregg Hurwitz' latest book is "Orphan X." (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Gregg Hurwitz is a study in literary contradictions. He was finishing his debut thriller, "The Tower," while psychoanalyzing Iago for his master's degree at Oxford. When he sold the manuscript, he was writing theater and opera reviews for the Palo Alto Weekly while also dubbing Japanese anime cartoons.

Since then Hurwitz, now an Angeleno, has had a packed, multifaceted career that spans novels, comic books and screenplays. He talks about his work with a disarming enthusiasm devoid of arrogance. He seems just as happy to riff on other writers he admires or, say, the chilaquiles at Blu Jam Café in Sherman Oaks, where we are sitting down for brunch.

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He's hit bestseller lists as both a thriller writer and a comic book author ("Wolverine," "Batman"). If these successes seem pulpy for a Shakespeare scholar, he sees that as being part of a grand commercial tradition.

"Shakespearean tragedies are convention-bound, narrative-driven tales of lust, intrigue and murder designed to appeal to the broadest possible cross-section of society," he says. "He was trying to put asses in seats."

Cover of the book "Orphan X" by Gregg Hurwitz.
Cover of the book "Orphan X" by Gregg Hurwitz. (Minotaur Books)

Hurwitz knows how to grab an audience. His books are international bestsellers and mainstays in the thriller award circuit. His next novel, "Orphan X" (Minotaur Books, 368 pp., $25.99), is out Tuesday — but you may have already heard of it; about a year ago, Bradley Cooper signed on to produce the film and possibly play the main character, Evan Smoak.

Smoak is a vigilante and shadow operator known, in whispers, as the Nowhere Man. As a child, Evan was recruited out of an East Baltimore group home to participate in the Orphan program, an off-the-books intelligence operation that raised promising children into government assassins. Now in his 30s, with near infinite money in the bank, Evan has gone solo.

Whereas Orphan X was a hired gun, the Nowhere Man chooses his missions, putting his skills to use according to his own principles. He helps innocents in desperate situations, and has a particular weak spot for families — he gives his all to protect a lifestyle he longs for but can never have, mostly by killing lots and lots of bad people.

"The characters I like most tend to have a dark streak but ultimately have something about them that's redemptive — I like characters who are so bad that they're good," Hurwitz says. "Evan is capable of doing anything but chooses, at great personal sacrifice, to do good."

Hurwitz professes an enduring interest in vigilante justice — he developed an obsession with the Punisher in middle school and more recently wrote several issues of that comic for Marvel.

"Orphan X" lies somewhere between a crime thriller and a superhero tale. It takes place in Los Angeles — Hurwitz is one of the few native Northern Californians to prefer SoCal. "I had to live in L.A. for a number of years before I could write about it because the bar for crime fiction in L.A. is so high. It's such an incredible tradition. You'd better know the city very well and not just talk about the SkyBar and Hollywood sign."

But Evan is more Batman than Marlowe, even if his barreling heroism comes with a streak of Chandlerian honor. "Orphan X" overlays present-day Los Angeles with a cloak of Gotham. Evan takes on gangsters and corrupt police officers as well as outsized assassins with dominatrix boots and Bond-movie gadgets. There's nonstop action and the conflicts are big-ticket conflicts: good versus evil, the loneliness of the hero.

Evan lives in a Superman-style "fortress of solitude," a Beverly Hills penthouse equipped with a floating Maglev bed and an 18th century Japanese sword mounted on one wall. There's something of the Esquire man in Mr. Smoak — he's an all-around connoisseur of boutique vodkas as well as weapons and martial arts techniques.

Hurwitz takes great pleasure in his field research, about as hands-on as it gets for a civilian. He did 10 weeks of mixed martial arts training in preparation for this book, fighting with people who "bludgeoned me comprehensively."

His thrillers may be shiny and slick, but "Orphan X" is also gleefully geeky. Hurwitz keeps up with the latest in security technology; he knows an armorer in Vegas who schools him on guns — important, as gun mistakes generate endless angry emails, something he's learned through experience.

Ultimately, though, Hurwitz is a storyteller, and he isn't beholden to fact. "A lot of stuff, there's a piece in reality, and I kind of hijack it for my evil purposes."

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Hurwitz has had the fiction bug for a long time: In elementary school he wrote — or rather, overwrote — a mystery novel, "Willie, Julie, and the Case of the Buried Treasure," and illustrated it in crayon. "No one 'says' anything," he recalls. "They all 'exclaim' and 'retort.'"

He ran through Stephen King's oeuvre in fifth grade, when it seemed adult and illicit; he wrote a fan letter to Peter Benchley, care of his publishing house, after tearing through "Jaws," and again in high school, college and on the publication of his first novel. He still has Benchley's replies.

Now a thriller giant in his own right, he is just as avid about his writing. He's fascinated by Evan Smoak, his first original series character since Tim Rackley, last seen in 2006. "You have to love your characters and have a lot of empathy for them, but especially with a series," he says. "I spend more time with the characters in my books than I do with my own family.

"I need to have someone with enough complexity and layers to interest me year after year. I think I've finally found the guy, like Elvis Cole and Joe Pike for Robert Crais or Jack Reacher for Lee Child — I've finally found the guy for me."

Hurwitz writes every day, often for 12 to 14 hours, starting at 7:30 in the morning. He's a workhorse, but that's not all there is to it. "You can learn the craft side," he says. "You can't learn the love."

::

'Orphan X' launch party

Where: Diesel Bookstore, Brentwood Country Mart. 225 26th St., Santa Monica, 90402

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

Admission: Free

Cha is the author, most recently, of the novel "Dead Soon Enough."

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