Book Review: 'The Room of White Fire' by T. Jefferson Parker

Reviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Room of White Fire
T. Jefferson Parker (Photo by Bruce Jenkin)

Best-selling novelist and Fallbrook, California resident T. Jefferson Parker had a great run with his six Charlie Hood Border Series thrillers. Now, with the release of The Room of White Fire (Putnam, August 22, 2017), Parker launches a new series with a new protagonist: San Diego private investigator Roland Ford.

Ford is a complex hero—a U.S. Marine war veteran, former sheriff’s deputy, and host to a gaggle of eccentrics in the North County compound they share. He is capable of precision violence when it’s called for, and he’s a bit of a brooder, but with a soft spot for underdogs and the smarts to pick them from a cast of compromised characters. Like Charlie Hood, Ford draws in readers and keeps them wincing and cheering as Parker deftly ratchets up the suspense.

In The Room of White Fire, Ford is asked to recover a young patient, Air Force veteran Clay Hickman, who has escaped from a private and surprisingly well-secured mental hospital.

Ford’s search for Clay is dogged by competing forces determined to silence the young man, who harbors an explosive secret. The mystery is compounded by an ill-defined connection between Clay and the hospital’s owner, Briggs Spencer. Spencer is one of two psychologists responsible for a torturous interrogation program employed by the CIA. And herein lies a jarring concurrence of events, one fiction and one fact.

While the literary world lauds Parker’s new novel, very real opposing attorneys are preparing for a federal civil trial against two former military psychologists, James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen, who created and implemented the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program.

The psychologists and their creation provided Parker some inspiration two years ago when he started writing the book. He said in a recent interview, “I was intrigued immediately when I read that America’s black site interrogation program, in the 2000s, was invented and run by a couple of American psychologists who basically had no experience in interrogation when they took the job offered by the CIA. They set up this program that they ran and administered and personally participated in—in what we now call ‘torture.’ And for their efforts, they were paid $81 million by the CIA. That was a real bit of American history, running secret torture camps for huge profit. That got my dander up, to say the least.”

But Parker went well beyond news reports, transforming fact into a compelling thriller—psychological and political.

“I started to imagine what those places were like and what these two men were like, and I imagined my way into the guys who I think are even more important to this story than these two psychologists—the kind of rank and file idealistic young men who were drafted into that program and put to work as torturers. What was the cost to them and what did they do—how did they deal with it? So I invented the foil of my book, Clay Hickman, who was recruited into the black site torture program by these charismatic psychologists. The book, kind of poetically speaking, is about the finding and recapturing of his soul.”

As he did with Clay, Parker manages to humanize the two fictional psychologists as well, demonstrating one of the many gifts of his books: They have a lot more gray than black and white. The moral ambiguity of his characters and their actions makes The Room of White Fire as riveting a thriller as it is a poignant examination of recent U.S. history and the damage the so-called “War on Terror” has done to the people who fight it and the people they fight against.

As Parker said, drama does something that facts often can’t in today’s news media: It puts human faces on people, people we might otherwise demonize. In The Room of White Fire, Parker challenges the reader to consider our demons another way.

Writers Read at Fallbrook Library will host the launch of The Room of White Fire in the library’s community room

The author reading and discussion is Tuesday, August 22, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

Fallbrook Library is located at 124 S. Mission Road.

Parker, a three-time Edgar Award winner, will discuss his book, which will be available for sale and signing.