Georgina Powers is 25 years old and her life is a bit of a mess. A journalist working in London for a weekly computer magazine, she doesn’t take very good care of herself and is recovering from a brief and disastrous marriage. Her life comes suddenly into focus however when her cousin Julian dies in a compromising situation, trussed up in an elaborate S&M contraption that apparently went wrong. But she comes to believe that his death was no accident but part of a conspiracy linked to a computer virus. When first published, this book was notable for combining the mystery genre with the emerging world of IT – it’s been nearly a quarter of a century and our relationship to computers has radically altered in the intervening years. How well does it hold up and just how prescient was it?
The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter P. My contribution this week is a review of a book recently re-issued by Ostara Crime. I also offer it as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott over at her Pattinase blog.
“We’d found a new twist to the old tale of murder in the quiet English village. The computer did it. The computer had killed my cousin.”
Julian had just been headhunted by a California startup and everything seemed to be going well for a man hitherto working in a fairly low-level IT post for a pizza company. Georgina and her friend Warren, a London cabbie-turned computer hacker, first get suspicious however when they discover that Julian’s computer has been wiped. On further inspection, they recover a crucial bit of hidden code that had been embedded within the machine. This virus created s subliminal message, creating a sort of post-hypnotic suggestion that ultimately caused his death – in effect a form of remote control murder. Even more upsetting, all traces of the company that hired Julian are slowly evaporating, with all the clues pointing to Eddy, Julian’s friend and Georgina’s cheating bastard of an ex-husband. Is he really involved in the murder? Before long Georgina’s flat gets burgled and she becomes the target of a pair of hitmen even though she is not entirely sure what it is that is lying behind all this violence and mayhem. Although there is a solid enough murder mystery at its core, the novel often feels more like a thriller with Georgina spending a lot of time evading the hitmen (not always with success as she gets badly beaten at one point). This does however also help mark the identity of the actual villain, though I think there is maybe one chase too many.
“A program like Scorn can find and reveal old files as easily as Victorian sleuths used to find the secret notes of villains pressed into a blotter”
One of the things I like really about this book is the fact that it feels like the author is clearly trying to do something new – at the time ‘cyber crime’ was still in its infancy as far as popular culture was concerned and there is a real zest, vigour and humour to the way it is deployed here, even if you don;t have ti buy into the big conspiracy plot. As this was all pretty new and sexy-seeming at the time, one does have to excuse some slightly clunky (and at times chunky) exposition on how computers and modems work. This is mostly handled very well though and the only time it noticeably slows down the narrative is in a ridiculously long 10-page section in which the story just stops dead so Georgina can explain how computers have now been integrated into the new and open stock exchange. It’s insanely long (slap bang in the middle of chapter 10 if you must know) and an editor really should have pruned it severely. Most of the story however is breathlessly told and is set during just a few days during ‘Black Monday’, the Wall Street Crash of Monday 19 October 1987. Almost 25 years later, to the day, this gives it a remarkably modern feel in its description of a financial world in free fall after wild speculating on the futures market – all, sadly, very, very topical isn’t it …
“Computerised dealing added speed to the disaster.”
Georgina is probably a lot less likeable than some of her fictional contemporaries (like Antonia Fraser’s Jemima Shore, Liza Cody’s Anna Lee or PD James’ Cordelia Gray) but the tradeoff is that the character always feels plausible and realistic as a young journo on the make at the height of Thatcher’s Britain. Sure she is selfish and undisciplined and uses people to get her own way – in fact she’s definitely a bit of a slovenly tramp who takes much more than she gives. She is also savvy, smart and trying to make it in the big metropolis as best she can. She is also unimpressed by wealth and position and that’s always a big plus in my book. Her first case makes for an engrossing read – you may get to the solution before Georgina, but you’ll still have a darn good time in her company.
She would go on to star in seven more mysteries. For Mike Ripley’s typically well-written profile of Danks and her work by, visit the Ostara Crime website at: www.ostarapublishing.co.uk/article-125.html. Ostara Crime, a series of reprints of fine thrillers and mysteries, is edited by Mr Ripley. So far they have reprinted the first three of the six books in the Georgina Powers series – for more information about the books, or to order a copy, click here.