This serial killer thriller was billed as the first interactive, “digi-novel,” which means that every couple chapters, the reader is told to log onto a website and watch a short video clip. Is this the future of the book? I doubt it. It’s a fun thriller, even though it’s a bit more run-of-the-mill than its authors would like us to believe.
Some plot spoilers follow (though I promise not to ruin the book for you).
There’s a secret government agency that hunts serial killers and has created a taxonomy of murderers, with twenty-five levels. Amateurs like Son of Sam and John Wayne Gacy are rated at a mere Level 12 or 15. However, there’s a serial killer they call Sqweegel who is off-the-charts evil and has been rated a Level 26. He’s been quiescent for a while, but he’s back with a vengeance, and a retired, psychologically-damaged serial killer hunter named Steve Dark (yes, the names are a bit silly, why do you ask?) who is forced to help catch Sqweegel once and for all. Oh and of course, Sqweegel does his best to torment Dark and his family (what’s left of them; Sqweegel has killed most of Dark’s relatives before the book even began). There are plenty of plot twists and turns, and Zuiker and Swierczynski don’t pull any punches. This is a brutal story, even moreso than I ha expected when I began reading. If you’re at all squeamish about mixtures of sex and violence, avoid this one.
I must address the digital component of the book, because it’s such an integral part of the story and because it’s really the one thing that sets the book apart from dozens if not hundreds of similar thrillers. Here’s my biggest complaint about the supplemental videos: there were just too darn many of them. Twenty total, which meant that they came roughly every twenty pages, and the book had pretty big print, so I would have to stop reading, get up, go to my computer, load and watch a video every few minutes. More often than not, I found myself setting the book down when I hit the next video and coming back to it later. The videos themselves weren’t bad – acting was generally if not universally decent, and from some cool character actors I like. One of the videos was surprisingly sexually explicit, which didn’t bother me, but it might some folks. The casting on a couple parts was questionable: the lead male actor wasn’t believable as Steve Dark (he was played by a scrawny hipster type with a little tiny ponytail) and despite that Dark’s wife was supposed to be white (noted explicitly in the text and on a medical form in one of the videos), she was played by a light-skinned African American woman. I guess my biggest complaints about the videos themselves (other than their frequency) was that most were superfluous, showing action that could have been easily described in the text, and that they weren’t actually supplemental to the text – they often reveal, literally, “what happens next” in the story. So while some of the videos were pointless, the reader absolutely cannot skip any of the videos or the following chapter wouldn’t make much sense. I will say that the videos were critically important for one reason: they show how Sqweegel moves (imagine a psychotic contortionist in a head-to-toe white latex catsuit). Without seeing him in action, he wouldn’t have been half as creepy, so from that perspective, the videos were a valuable addition, but I certainly didn’t need twenty of them.
Ultimately, I give this one 3.5 stars out of 5. At its heart, this is a more or less traditional maverick serial killer hunter vs. an over-the-top serial killer. We’ve all seen this before, and if you’ve read one, you’ve basically read them all. Yes, Sqweegel is even more over-the-top than most serial killers (some of the stuff he does really is horrific), and the videos are an interesting touch, but they do little more than obfuscate the fact that this is a simple, familiar tale. It’s certainly not bad by any means, but it’s nothing earth-shattering either. There are two follow-ons (the third volume has not yet been released), and I’m curious enough how it turns out that I will probably pick up the second book in the trilogy, but I’m in no rush.
Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers