Living - and dying - on line

"The Blue Nowhere"
By Jeffery Deaver
(Simon & Schuster, 425 pages, $26)

Buy it at in hardcover or in paperback.

Reviewed by John Orr
May 2001

Used to be, the best computer thrillers were non-fiction. "@Large" by David H. Freedman and Charles C. Mann, "The Fugitive Game : Online With Kevin Mitnick" by Jonathan Littman.

But here comes the reigning king of crime thrillers, Jeffery Deaver, with a killer app of a novel that both "gets it" in terms of understanding the machine world and its people, and is a zinger of a mystery that brings crime procedurals into the silicon age.

And into Silicon Valley, because that is where "The Blue Nowhere" is set, with a brilliant, sociopathic computer cracker taking an online game called Access to a deadly new level in Cupertino, Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills and San Jose.

The cracker -- "Phate" -- has written a computer program that can infect other user's machines, giving him access to everything on their hard drives. He uses that information to con his way next to them, close enough to end their lives with a military K-bar knife.

Local homicide detectives team up with a state computer crimes operation with its own computer wizard, but even he isn't enough to capture Phate. So the good guys trick the feds into temporarily springing a convicted computer criminal, Wyatt Gillette, to serve as their champion in the online arena.

This being Deaver, the story is compelling and has more twists and turns than a bowl of spaghetti, with the readers never really knowing -- until the last pages -- who are the good guys and the bad. Almost everyone is a suspect.

And Deaver's tour through what a bad guy can do with a computer is shocking. Several times I found myself saying, "Now, wait a minute! THAT can't be done with a computer!" But, I spent a few days talking with experts on computers ranging from Crays to PCs and found out -- Uh oh! -- it is possible to shut down the cooling fan on some mainframes using software, while continuing to manipulate disk drives and CPU. It is possible for a virus to make the screen go fuzzy. And much more.

"The Blue Nowhere" -- while about a sociopath who has lost all understanding of the difference between online life and offline life -- has a core understanding of what is appealing about the machine world; about what draws so many millions of people to embrace computers and the Internet in their daily lives.

Deaver himself regularly spends 12 hours a day at his computers, doing research and writing, and his empathy for people who spend 12 hours a day writing code shines through this novel.

It's a great pleasure to find a novel that works on so many levels.

Read an interview with Deaver from the time of this novel.

Visit Jeffery Deaver's website