Just when you thought it was safe to check your e-mail, psychokiller specialist Deaver (Speaking in Tongues, 2000, etc.) shows just how malignant the human ghost in your machine can be.
Jon Patrick Holloway is a hacker who prefers to be called Phate—and prefers to use the knowledge he gets about other people from hacking into their systems to set them up for murder. Bored with cracking the encryption codes for Fort Knox and the Pentagon, he’s devised a program that will get him into virtually any computer and allow him to scan its memory, reconfigure its software, bring its hard drive crashing down, or give him all the intimate details he needs to worm himself into the user’s confidence as he goes in for the kill. But Lt. Andy Anderson of the California State Police, though he’s light-years behind the murderous geek, has a secret weapon: Wyatt Gillette, an imprisoned computer wizard he’s temporarily freed so that he can go byte to byte with his old cyber-acquaintance Phate. Forget about the halfhearted echoes of that other unofficial police assistant Hannibal Lecter, and the halfhearted linking of Phate’s attacks to historic computer anniversaries; what Deaver’s really interested in is prolonging the Kabuki dance of his two state-of-the-art cavemen by having each of them endlessly second-guess the other via ruses, bluffs, and more masquerades than Mardi Gras. Despite the real paranoia Deaver’s premise taps into, though—if every computer on earth is subject to tampering, what information can you trust?—the constant string of disguises works against development: after the briskly suspenseful opening chapters, there’s no place for this endlessly ingenious tale to go.
That doesn’t mean Deaver doesn’t provide his trademark throat-clutchers, diabolical double-crosses, or action scenes that suddenly turn inside out—only that this time there are just too many, and too few memorable characters who live through them.