Book Review: Level 26: Dark Origins by Anthony E. Zuiker and Duane Swierczynski

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.

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Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski

This is a really good book. And best of all, it’s the first volume in a new thriller trilogy that I’m excited about.

Some plot spoilers follow.

Charlie Hardie is kind of a loser. He’s a seemingly unmotivated slacker who supports his booze and old movie habit through housesitting. As it turns out, when the crap hits the fan, Charlie wasn’t always the loser he appears to be. He’s an ex-cop from Philly who tangled with the Albanian mob and accidentally got his partner and the partner’s family killed. Now he’s in a kind of unofficial witness protection and can’t even contact his own family lest his old enemies discover their whereabouts (how much you want to bet by the end of the trilogy he is forced to demolish Philly’s Albanian mob?). And make no mistake, the stuff hits the fan pretty early on in the novel. Charlie arrives at his new L.A. gig to find a paranoid B-List actress hiding out there from a group called “The Accident People” who work for the Hollywood heavy hitters (and others?) and specialize in killing people and making it look like accidents. The actress is their next target and Charlie becomes a loose end that has to be tied up. And by “tied up,” I mean murdered.

I’d have liked it maybe just a tiny bit better had the protagonist not been quite as, well, “superhuman” as he is. Sure, he starts off as a washed-up, alcoholic ex-cop who’s now basically just a loser who kills time by housesitting, getting wasted, and watching old movies until he passes out. But once the crazy stuff starts happening, we quickly realize that Charlie Hardie is far more than he appears to be. In fact, by the end of the book, Hardie has survived as much as Rasputin – he gets beaten, bludgeoned, tasered, shot, drowned, and had (what should be lethal) chemicals used on him. I don’t think I’m giving much away by saying that he survives it all (keep in mind, this is called the “Charlie Hardie” trilogy for a reason). The secondary characters and antagonists are well-crafted, the dialogue natural, and the pace pretty much never lets up. Despite my brief plot summary above (which doesn’t reveal much more than the back cover), there are plenty of twists and turns that will leave you guessing.

I give this one 4.5 stars out of 5. Great book, fast-paced, very exciting. Sure, we’re asked to suspend our disbelief at times just a little bit more than I’d like, but the premise is terrific, and it’s very well executed. I will definitely be picking up the next sequel.

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a review.

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Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers

Review: Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski

Warning: some plot spoilers are included, though I’m not purposely giving away the plot’s twists and turns.
This is an outstanding example of modern noir, though, oddly, it’s also a time travel novel. Our protagonist Mickey Wade is a laid-off journalist living in Philadelphia – an old, corrupt, seedy city I‘ve always enjoyed visiting – whose personal situation is rapidly heading from bad to worse. He’s got no job, no real career prospects, no money, and he’s forced to move into his hospitalized grandfather’s ratty old walk-up. The book begins with this dark backdrop as we watch the protagonist descend further into the kind of personal hell that’s become all too common in these troubled financial times. Then he discovers that some pills in his grandfather’s medicine cabinet allow him to travel back to the same location in 1972, the year of his birth. That’s when things really start getting weird. The people he encounters there are all intimately tied in with his father’s murder, which he attempts to solve after learning that the version of the story he had heard isn’t exactly what happened. The more he discovers about the past, the messier things get. As with most time travel thrillers, there are a few dangling plot holes that can’t quite be resolved, but generally the treatment of paradox and causation are handled intelligently.
This is a fast-paced, fun read, despite its inherently dark subject matter, and I had a hard time putting it down. Characterization is smooth and the dialogue flows effortlessly. The sense of place is palpable as we watch what had been a fairly prosperous lower-middle-class Philly neighborhood in 1972 slowly transform into a dangerous rathole in 2010. Swierczynski clearly knows his craft as a writer. Evocative full-page illustrations every few chapters add to the experience.
Highly recommended for those who enjoy noir with a science fiction bent. (Not to worry, even if you have a marked allergy to science fiction as I know many crime fiction readers do, I don’t think you’ll object too much here.) This was the first of Duane Swierczynski’s books I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers