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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Spark by John Twelve Hawks

Doubleday, 320 pages, $25.95

John Twelve Hawks is a pseudonym. There have been many guesses, including Stephen King and James Patterson, about his identity. Whoever he may be, and more power to him if he wants to remain anonymous, he writes an eminently readable story.

Although I enjoyed “The Traveler,” the first book Twelve Hawks wrote in his “Fourth Realm” trilogy, I never remembered to hunt down the other two books (“The Dark River” and “The Golden City”). I stumbled upon Twelve Hawks’s “Spark” serendipitously and remembered I enjoyed reading him. He has great pacing and the ability to create memorable characters.

Jacob Underwood (enforcer) is a much more fascinating character than his alter ego, Jacob Davis (computer programmer). That’s because Jacob Underwood is what was born after Jacob Davis had a permanently disabling motorcycle accident. His traumatized brain discarded vital elements of Jacob Davis’s personality.

Davis was one of the guys, had a dim-witted model girlfriend, and played the game. Underwood has synesthesia and aspects of Asperger’s. He often “sees” colors when he smells or hears. He cannot differentiate emotional states in other people. He has no emotional states himself. He doesn’t enjoy food, music, or the company of people. He cannot bear to be touched. He has to follow “rules” to remember to eat and maintain a modicum of personal hygiene. All of which makes him not only a very interesting character to read about but a great hired assassin for an unscrupulous international banking concern.

Underwood places everything at an equal level. A “human unit” is the same as a dustpan is the same as a tomato is the same as an umbrella. Killing a person has no relevance to his life except as a way of making money, something he is unable to do in any normal way. Only dogs, mysteriously, have an elevated status.

Underwood is assigned targets in Paris. He must kill the son-in-law of an Indian magnate because the son-in-law has amassed information on his father-in-law’s wrongdoing. The father-in-law is a customer in good standing of the secret and nefarious departments of the international bank, Underwood’s employer. Out of spite, the magnate indicates his daughter and her child must be killed, too.

If everything and everyone is on the same level of value, then killing a child should be no more difficult than throwing out a banana peel. In Underwood’s world view, a human unit’s “spark” would be extinguished. Big deal.

This is where the story turns for Underwood, because he balks at killing the child. Is his brain slowly repairing itself, giving him more of a conscience, returning his morality? Is it an anomaly? What will this mean for carrying on with his livelihood?

Running behind the scenes but at an equal level of interest is Twelve Hawks’s take on technology in the not-too-distant future. Triggered by a 9-11-type of disaster (“The Day of Rage”), most governments have authorized comprehensive intrusion into the private lives of their citizens. Cameras are everywhere, personal data is mined, government ID is required. There’s an underground movement to hold the government and its citizens accountable for replacing human workers with robots and inviting Big Brother into the world (think WikiLeaks, Assange, Snowden).

Although other authors have used synesthesia and Asperger’s before, Underwood’s character’s quirkiness and charm combine with the disorders to make “Spark” a truly interesting read.

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