Deep Dark by Laura Griffin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a difficult novel to review. There were some things that were absolutely awesome, and some other things that were absolutely awful. Together, they add up to a decent novel.
Reed Novak is a dedicated but troubled detective, still struggling with the aftermath of his divorce. He finds himself baffled by a serial killer who seems to know forensic evidence better than he does. When you're trying to catch someone who's covered their tracks so well that they even wear plastic gloves and shoe covers, clues are in short supply. He's a great character, tough but with a soft center looking for love.
Laney Knox is a hacker for the Delphi Center, a non-profit group that offers freelance crime scene investigation. She's still traumatized from an attack late at night by a mysterious man who almost killed her. When she discovers her best friend was murdered by the same man, she tries to anonymously tip Novak off to the killer. When he tracks her down, she reluctantly joins forces with Novak to stop him. But she also finds herself attracted to him, and they form a professional and personal bond.
The writing is some of the best I've ever seen. Within a few words, the author is able to conjure up an entire scene. She puts in just enough information for us to visualize the world without putting in unnecessary exposition. She sprinkles in details that not only describe things, but also gives us a lot of background. Without coming right out and saying, "This character is a police officer," she will allow those facts to be implied and expressed in actions and description.
For example, this is the second paragraph of the book:
"She [Laney Knox] stared into the void, trying to shake off her grogginess. The outdoor lightbulb was new-her landlord had changed it yesterday. Had he botched the job? She should have done it herself, but her shoestring budget didn't cover LED lights. It barely covered ramen and Red Bull."
In those five sentences, we learn she's renting her apartment, she's independent enough to want to do things herself, she's poor, and she eats a diet that's favored by college students and (as is later revealed) computer hackers to maximize long hours and minimal flavor.
In other words, Griffin is a master of the writer's axiom: "show, don't tell." From the very first sentence, I was amazed at her command of the language. I can't say enough about that.
Everyone in the novel feels like a fully developed character. The major heroes Novak and Laney have complex and detailed backgrounds. We learn about their family and friends and enemies and connections, so the novel is a journey of discovering who they are and what drives them. They also have their own little quirks and idiosyncrasies that show in the way they see the world, and even decorate their apartments. But the characterization continues all the way down to secondary characters. Even people who have one or two lines have little details that make them come to life as more than just clichés.
I'm not usually a romance reader, so I can't say if the romance in this novel is the best ever, but I thought it was good. As someone who doesn't particularly enjoy romance, I liked that the romantic subplot didn't overwhelm the actual story. It was a major element, but the suspense and tension didn't get pushed to the side. I did want the two of them to get together, and enjoyed their interactions together. Maybe some would think the romance was too thin, but I liked it.
+ Technical Details
From reading up on the back of the book, it seems like this novel is in the "Tracers" series. It seems like each novel is about different forensic research. I thought that showed because there's a lot of it. This novel is like an episode of "CSI" with different forensic scientists following clues on hair, blood, fingerprints, metal composition, and everything in between. Novak spends a lot of time talking to scientists, and various techniques are described in detail. I was especially impressed with how the novel following actual police procedure. I enjoy forensic science, so it was fun to read about people studying intricate clues to the mystery. As the description says, fans of "CSI" would eat this up.
I've read a lot of suspense novels, and this serial killer is particularly diabolical. The idea of a killer who knows how to cover his tracks is an old one, but I've never seen one this detailed. I loved the chess match between the killer's hiding clues, and how the police still managed to find ways to track him down. The threat of impending death also ramped up nicely, and there were some good action scenes that made my heart race. A real page-turner.
For a suspense thriller, there aren't enough action scenes for me. There's basically a couple of chase scenes. I would have liked more actual action scenes - maybe a firefight or a car chase or something. If you made this into a movie, it would be people sitting around talking for two hours with about five minutes of action.
It felt like Griffin has been watching too many episodes of "CSI." I mean that literally, as evidenced by the fact she calls the crime scene forensics team "CSI" at one point. To those who watch this show, the term "CSI" is a made-up term, an explanation for why the forensic scientists on the show will go out into the field, interview suspects, and carry out raids, none of which real crime scene technicians do. In the real world, crime scene forensics is known as "CS" or "forensics." Calling them CSI is comparable to someone calling the American space program "Starfleet" instead of NASA.
As much as the characters are more than clichés, they're not exactly complex. For example, the main character Laney Knox is described as being awkward and uncomfortable in social settings, but her actions show anything but. She has lots of friends, goes to parties and work where there are lots of people around, and her dialogue shows confidence and humor. This chick is practically an extrovert. Other than her interior dialogue and people saying she has social anxiety, there's no attempt to actually follow through on that. Lizbeth Salander of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is a great example of real social anxiety portrayed in fiction. Laney Knox is pretty much your cookie cutter "spunky chick" cliché heroine. That's not necessarily bad, since she's a fun character. I just was disappointed Griffin chose not to portray social anxiety realistically.
The author clearly knows forensic science, but has a limited understanding of the hacker community. She uses terms like "script kiddies" and actual hacking techniques, which shows some research, but other areas are weak. For example, Griffin describes the heroine as a legend in the hacking community because she did a DDOS attack. DDOS attacks are one of the most overused and easiest to carry out "script kiddy" hacks, so it's unlikely that would impress the hacker community as much as the author claims. Also, the heroine manages to guess people's passwords using various social engineering tricks, which impresses people, but real hackers know guessing passwords is a waste of time. As someone who works tech support and has to deal with people who can't even guess their own passwords, I know it's virtually impossible to guess someone else's. Especially when many accounts will lock after too many attempts. Real hackers will use tools to reset the password themselves or guess the password with automated cracker tools or bypass the password entirely. It seems like Griffin did some research to sound like she knew what she was talking about, but not enough to be an actual expert. Bottom line, the tech speak would fool someone with only limited knowledge of hacking, but real hackers roll their eyes.
- The Ending
I assumed this book was a typical thriller like James Patterson or Thomas Harris where the killer is unknown. I didn't realize it was supposed to be a mystery where the killer is one of the book's characters, and I was supposed to figure out who. When they revealed the killer as one of the characters already introduced, I was dumbfounded and disappointed. I mean, out of all the millions of people in the city, what are the odds the killer would turn out to be one of the twenty or so people in the novel? I know that's standard for mystery novels, but I wasn't expecting that in a novel billed as a thriller. I also found the revelation kind of ridiculous. Most of the clues the detectives spent weeks analyzing and pursuing ended up having almost nothing to do with finding the killer. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say the detective basically trips over the name of the real killer without relying on any of the research performed. Most of the clues didn't point to the real killer except in the vaguest sense. That means 90% of the novel could have been cut without affecting the resolution in any way.
When you put the good and the bad together, you get a novel that I would still recommend, but is held back by some major problems.
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