In Barthel's debut techno-thriller, the death of a scientist in a California lab could be murder, and his posthumously discovered message warns of a possible terrorist attack in the U.S.
Evan Olsson works at Halsted Aeronautic Laboratory for two years before he even hears of HAL's secret lab, the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. His boss asks him to summarize, in nontechnical terms for the benefit of HAL customers, the scientists' projects carried out in the SCIF. When Evan's SCIF boss and mentor, Will Davenport, is found dead is his office, Evan takes over Will's project, analyzing data for the FBI—namely emails or other forms of communication from suspected drug dealers. But an encrypted video message from Will leads Evan to believe that someone murdered him for getting too close to a covert group plotting to cripple the U.S. by sabotaging its electrical power network. As Evan fears that a killer may target him as well, he teams up with Matt Emerson, a Fed who'd worked with Will on the project, to shut down drug dealers and potential terrorists that, Evan discovers, may have ties to Will's murderer. The novel is a deft blend of techno-thriller and murder mystery, and the latter is promptly established by opening with the discovery of Will's body. Evan's SCIF assignment has him interviewing scientists about their projects, including two men developing small, imperceptible transponders, and each of these people ultimately becomes a suspect, as the high-level security at HAL practically guarantees that the killer is employed at the lab. Evan is a curious protagonist whose initial behavior is perplexing; the first thing he does after learning of his boss's death is take Holly, a colleague married to another HAL scientist, to lunch and strongly suggest that they have sex (he later concedes that he "felt like a creep"). But his amateur investigation is solid. He whittles down the suspect list with the barest of clues, having seen neither the body nor any data collected by the FBI (which didn't treat it as a crime scene), and his paranoia is well-founded since he's dealing with scientists who prefer keeping their work secret. The best sequences are of Evan conversing with his artificial intelligence, Al; their discussions not only accommodate updates on the progressing case, but are quite humorous as well.
A sound thriller/mystery with drug dealers, terrorists and a memorable lead character.
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