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A Criminal to Die For
The pseudonymous John Sandford is best known for his durable series of suspense novels (Night Prey, Eyes of Prey, etc.) featuring Minneapolis homicide detective Lucas Davenport. But earlier in his career, writing under his given name of John Camp, Sandford produced a pair of striking -- and very different -- thrillers featuring the artist, hacker, and occasional criminal known, simply, as Kidd. Nine years after his farewell appearance in The Empress Files, Kidd makes a welcome return in a cleverly conceived cyberthriller called, appropriately, The Devil's Code.
Kidd is an intriguingly contradictory antihero: a successful painter who supplements his income through illegal computer activities, a pragmatist who believes in the predictive qualities of the tarot. His latest adventure begins with a pair of enigmatic, seemingly unrelated murders. First, Terence Lighter, a midlevel bureaucrat for the National Security Agency, is shot to death outside his Glen Burnie home. One day later, Jack Morrison, a fellow hacker and former associate of Kidd's, is likewise shot to death, ostensibly while breaking into the data banks of AmMath, a high-tech firm specializing in the development of encryption software. Shortly afterward, Morrison's sister, convinced that her brother was an innocent victim, enlists Kidd's aid in uncovering the circumstances that led to Jack's death.
Kidd, along with some colorful cohorts from his checkered past, soon finds himself imperiled on two related fronts. First, his investigation into AmMath's shadier dealings inadvertently triggers a second series of murders. At the same time, his supposed connection with a mythical hacker/terrorist group named Firewall makes him the target of an intense, highly publicized federal investigation. Kidd's attempts to exonerate Jack Morrison, unearth the details of a treasonous conspiracy, and avoid capture by the combined forces of the FBI and NSA form the substance of this furiously paced, unfailingly entertaining novel.
Although The Devil's Code may be less viscerally exciting than the Lucas Davenport books, it still offers a full display of its author's many gifts. These include his clean, no-frills style, his flawless ear for dialogue, and his precise reporter's eye for character and setting. But the most impressive aspect of The Devil's Code -- and the true heart of the book -- is its convincing re-creation of the arcane world of the professional hacker. Sandford's familiarity with that world, together with his easy mastery of abstruse technical details, enhances the narrative at every turn, lending it an air of seamless, unobtrusive authenticity.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has just been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).