The Room of White Fire
San Diego-based private investigator Roland Ford has a special talent for finding people, and in The Room of White Fire, T. Jefferson Parker’s opening novel in a new thriller series, he’s hired to find Clay Hickman, an Air Force veteran who has escaped from Arcadia, an exclusive mental institution.
A former Marine and law enforcement officer, Roland immediately encounters a web of deception and misdirection emanating from asylum owner Dr. Briggs Spencer; from Spencer’s head of security; and from Dr. Paige Hulet, Clay’s doctor.
Sorting through a falsified service record, a pharmaceutical formulary that doesn’t match the drugs Clay has been receiving, and stories about the missing man from a fellow patient that sound closer to the truth than what he’s hearing from the subject’s care providers, Roland discovers that a two-year gap in Clay’s history places him in a frightening CIA-sponsored torture center in Romania as part of Briggs Spencer’s interrogation contracting business, which has made him a fortune in the fight against terror.
What follows is a dark and disturbing journey through the horrors of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” detailed descriptions of how these techniques were used at similar black sites such as Bagram and Guantanamo Bay, and an exploration of the “moral injury” that results to people like Clay Hickman when they participate in such horrifying acts.
A three-time Edgar Award winner, Parker is a crime fiction veteran, and his Charlie Hood and Merci Rayborn series have earned him a reputation as one of the better storytellers in the business. The Room of White Fire is a promising start to a new series, but readers must understand up front what they’re getting themselves into when they pick up this novel and find themselves captivated by its opening chapters.
Roland Ford makes a very positive first impression as a private investigator in the best traditions of conventional detective fiction, and his initial exploration of the case is rather reminiscent of Ross Macdonald and the up-front skepticism of Lew Archer. The first-person narrative is crisp, direct, and modestly irreverent. The reader instantly bonds with Roland and is on board with the story.
Before long, however, Parker’s tale diverts from detective fiction into thriller, and the reader is plunged into much darker water. As Roland uncovers evidence that Spencer’s black site in Romania involved Clay Hickman in unspeakable acts of horror against individuals captured in the war against terror, the reader must decide whether the ride they signed up for is a ride they’re still willing to stick with. When Spencer’s former partner, Timothy Tritt, asks Roland “Do you find it unpleasant to hear this story?” it is the reader who must answer before continuing.
Authors make decisions all the time as they are drafting a story: what subject matter they want to write about, how they want to deal with it thematically, and to what level of detail they will descend. Parker doesn’t pull any punches in this one, and at times his choices make for unpleasant reading. Roland tells a secondary character near the end of the story that while these people have done some very bad things, “The country should know, because America is better than that.” After such a barrage of horrific detail, it’s an assertion that seems somehow inadequate.
T. Jefferson Parker is an excellent storyteller, Roland Ford is a very promising protagonist, and The Room of White Fire is a solid beginning to a new series. The watchword for this thriller, however, is caveat lector—let the reader beware. The story you expect to read after the first few chapters may not be the one you end up experiencing.