THE PIZZA HOUSE CRASH (1989) by Denise Danks

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.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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22 Responses to THE PIZZA HOUSE CRASH (1989) by Denise Danks

  1. Sergio – What an interesting choice for P! I’m glad you liked it and I do find it absolutely fascinating as an early look at the way the Internet would end up affecting our lives. Looking back now it seems as though it holds up better than a lot of other books have. Of course as you point out, that may have a lot to do with the solid and well-developed protagonist…

    • Thanks Margot – that its topicality remains is frankly disheartening (and very scary) but Georgina feels like a real and flawed person. not sure I’d want to spend too much time wih her of course as so many people end up dead!

  2. Valli says:

    I read Len Dieghton’s XPD recently published in 1981. There is a bit about hacking computers in banks. Death by virus induced suggestions sounds almost like The Ring movie. Interesting concept! I will look for this book.

    • Thanks Valli – interesting connection you’ve made there. Certainly, Deighton’s historical novels (of which XPD is a sort of pendant I suppose) couldn’t have been written without computerised retrieval systems. In Danks’ book the virus is pretty disastrous but is definitely of this earth!

      • Valli says:

        Well, the book was published in 1981 and I read it recently. XPD is a spy novel. And I found the mention of computer hacking as early as 1981 interesting.

        • That is really fascinating Valli say because you really wouldn’t expect it so early, though I suppose Deighton was always been pretty cutting edge. Apparently some of the earliest recorded cases stem from the very late sixties – the phrase’computer virus’ seems to have emerged circa 1984 (same year that William Gibson’s groundbreaking Neuromancer was published).

  3. Todd Mason says:

    A little Edgar Wallace flavor to that McGuffin of computer hypno-suggestion…I can see how that might hook a De Palma fan! Sounds like fun…wonder if she’ll be tempted to update for any reprints…

    • Hi Todd – well, the advantage of this one is that the time and place is very specific, which makes it hold up very nicely. With the others perhaps less so – Mike Ripley reports that Danks has written little of late due to ME / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sadly.

      • Todd Mason says:

        Sad news…as you can see, I haven’t red that interview yet (nor did I let it sink in that you might well be reading the re-issues, or probably would’ve noted it if she had revised her text).

        • Hiya Todd, actually I’ll chase Mike on this – my understanding is that the texts have not been revised in any way. I originally read some of the Danks novels when they first came out and I have several of those on the shelves – in looking at my old Futura paperback of Pizza House Crash I certainly noted rather a lot of typos and other editorial SNAFUs …

  4. Denise Danks is new to me, so thanks for reviewing her book, Sergio. This must be one of the earliest novels about computer hackers and hacking which is now a fairly common theme in books and movies about cyber crimes. I can imagine those monstrous IBM and Apple computers and a particular one called Commodore 64. I wonder if the 10-page long section on computers came out of a weighty literature on early computers. Intriguing title, by the way.

    • Thanks Prashant – Danks at the time was a very successful computer journalist so she really knew the subject. I suppose one could read Georgina as an idealised, younger version of the author (like Sayers’ Harriet Vane) though I can’t factually back that up at all!

  5. Pizza is one of my major Food Groups so I’ll have to seek this out.

  6. TracyK says:

    Very interesting post and timely for me. I had just seen articles by or about Denise Danks in old Crime Time magazines I was reading, and was not familiar with the author. This helps a lot and you have definitely sparked my interest. And the link to the Ostara site is great. I will have to look at that whole website more.

    I like the comparison (in the comments) to XPD by Deighton which I have not read yet but will read before the end of the year.

    Reading this book would be interesting personally because I was in IT in that time period (although working on minicomputers…) and just working on moving systems to microcomputers. I am impressed at the author’s credentials in this area.

    • Brilliant bit of serendipity TracyK – I think you’d really enjoy this one. I too was eying XPD as a way of dealing with that pesky letter of the alphabet for the meme but from what Srivalli says it sounds like it is already spoken for so I shall move on to something else – Deighton of course is worth reading without any need for an excuse whatsoever.

      • TracyK says:

        I had originally planned to read XPD for an alphabet reading challenge [Apart from the meme], and I want to read all of his books (I just got Bomber and am very excited, even though it is huge). But it seems like there is inevitably going to be overlap in X with so few choices.

        • Yes, I feel I may have to get ‘creative’ with regards to this particular letter. Last year I managed to come up with one that no one else had and felt ridiculously proud of myself …

          • TracyK says:

            I will feel lucky just to get one done. Very busy through those months but I am going to do the whole alphabet if it kills me. I have another book in mind but I don’t know if I can get the book read. (and then someone else would pick it anyway. Oh well.)

          • Bizarre how one gets caught up in it, don;t you think? I only started with F last year so was determined that in 2012 I would do every single one, no matter what. But I have also decided that, for all the fun, I only need to do it the once all the way through – after this I am taking a much more relaxed approach as it’s just too stressful!

  7. Mike Ripley says:

    Computer buffs – and historians of computers and how they have affected our lives – should try Denise’s third novel FRAME GRABBER, also published by Ostara Crime. When it first appeared it was thought very shocking and almost science fiction, predicting the growth of virtual reality computer games and internet pornography. In later books, Georgina Powers is involved in
    investigations which cover phone hacking, mobile phone cloning and the use of what we would now call “sock puppet” fake identities! Denise Danks was always ahead of the game when it came to technology.

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