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The Program    by Gregg Hurwitz order for
by Gregg Hurwitz
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William Morrow, 2004 (2004)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Do you believe that you could never get pulled into a cult? Read The Program and you might begin to wonder. As Gregg Hurwitz takes his hero, ex-U.S. Marshall Tim Rackley, through a cult initiation process during his investigation, the reader too wonders, would I succumb?

Rackley is married to tough-minded law officer Dray. As this story opens, they are still dealing with the devastation of the murder of their seven-year-old daughter Ginny in The Kill Clause, in which Rackley's actions in his quest for justice and vengeance lost him his job. Now he's approached by his ex-boss, and asked to come back into the fold temporarily. A Hollywood producer, with powerful connections, wants his stepdaughter, Leah Henning, extracted from a cult. Re-entering his old workplace, Rackley encounters mixed reactions, with only his loyal ex-partner Bear a firm supporter. Bear continues to watch Tim's back through the investigation.

At first, Rackley assumes he can simply kidnap Leah and drop her off at home. But he discovers that only two ex-cult members have failed to commit suicide - one is now an institutionalized schizophrenic and the other (Reggie) barely copes with the challenges of making a myriad of daily life decisions. Advised by cult expert, Dr. Glen Bederman, Tim decides to infiltrate 'The Program', and try to influence Leah from within. He poses as rich Tom Altman, whose $90 million portfolio makes him a prime target to be fleeced. Dray warns him, 'You're doing your Wile E. Coyote creep off the cliff right now ... make sure you pack a parachute.'

We watch Tim/Tom walk a very fine tightrope above the mind-control cult's hypnotic whirlpool. Leah, who is smart but vulnerable, evolves from mouthing 'Program' propaganda and worshipping its 'Leader', TD, as a deity, to showing small signs that she might one day be able to think for herself again. Hurwitz takes us on a tense, edge of the seat ride on a journey into nightmare, in which the legal system is largely powerless. Rackley was unable to protect his own daughter. We wonder up to the last pages whether Leah will be saved, or even survive, and whether Tim and Dray will be able to rebuild from the ruins of their own lives.

It's always thrilling to be introduced to an author whose work excites you. Though I enjoyed this episode as a standalone thriller (which I read in one gulp), the hints about the backstory make me keen to read Tim Rackley's earlier adventure, The Kill Clause. If you haven't discovered Gregg Hurwitz yet, you really must 'get with' The Program!

2nd review by Mary Ann Smyth:

The Program kept me turning pages late at night and into the early morning hours. Greg Hurwitz paints a frightening picture of the world of cults. It's not an easy book to read - not because of the writing, which is flawless, but because of content. College student Leah Henning disappears into the mind-bending world of a cult. Her stepfather Will, ready to do anything to effect her return, retains the help of ex-US Marshall Tim Rackley, a man with demons of his own.

Action races from one moment to the next with nary a stop for breath. The characterizations are like the writing - flawless. These could be real people doing a real job, which is what makes the book so compelling. Though fiction, it could easily be non-fiction. Instead of viewing a cult from the outside, and experiencing a cult follower's road after leaving such a group, the reader heads into the inner sanctum of a terrifying world of neophytes following their new leader by withdrawing from the world and living at the Teacher's beck and call. After relinquishing their assets to the greater good of the cult. No longer to have thoughts or wills of their own. To live in a bubble of self-doubt and loathing.

The reader, along with Rackley, attends a rally of new recruits and sees him very nearly succumb to the manipulative mind of Teacher T.D. Betters. I've never understood the pull of giving oneself up to another's directives. But this is more than a pull. The machinations used by Betters and described by Hurwitz are more than horrendous. They seem like the doings of the devil himself. Sleep deprivation, starvation, as well as sugar and hormone overload, and group hypnotism go a long way to bring a malleable mind to task. Betters has a charismatic personality that could have been put to better use. Makes one wonder where he went off the track.

For excitement and a sense of apprehension that pulls the fingers to turn yet another page, for a feeling of wanting to make everything turn out right and good, for wanting to involve oneself in the rescue effort, and for a darn good read, you can't go wrong with The Program.

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