Death Match, Lincoln Child

<em class="BookTitle">Death Match</em>, Lincoln Child

Anchor, 2004 (2006 reprint), 388 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-307-27556-6

Here’s a pop quiz to test your genre savvy: You’re locked in a room with a string of murder victims on the floor. Around you are a cowboy, a vampire, an Artificial Intelligence, a ninja, a pirate, the President of the United States and a butler. You find out you’re in a technothriller. Who killed the victims?

That’s right: The Artificial Intelligence. Well done.

It’s never Lupus, but it’s always the Artificial Intelligence in technothrillers. It’s an impulse as basic as the class anxieties that led to an improbable number of homicidal butlers in British cozy murder mysteries: Technothriller writers are in the business of chilling their readers, and they calculate that since we already loathe our laptops and smart phones, we should be terrified of even smarter machines. The point at which computers become smarter than ourselves may already be here: looking at how many iPhones are already more intelligent than their teenage owners, it’s hard not to believe in the upcoming Singularity —not through machine intelligence, but thanks to increasing human stupidity.

And it’s human stupidity that finally brings us to Lincoln Child’s Death Match, three paragraphs in our review. Like Child’s two other solo novels so far, it deals with high technology run amok. It also shares with Utopia and Deep Storm, a fantastic first half that ultimately gets ground to generic platitudes by the end of the novel. Taken together, they make a convincing argument that Lincoln Child is the logical heir to Michael Crichton. This, however, may not be compliment.

But before getting there, let’s lay down the basics of the story: Our protagonist is one Christopher Lash, a “forensic psychologist” whose career at the FBI was cut down by an initially unspecified trauma. Lash is called upon by Eden Inc, a secretive matchmaking service: Apparently, one of their happily married couples has committed double suicide, and they want to know why. Eden, mind you, isn’t your usual matchmaking service: it asks for $25,000 up-front, requires a full day of wide-spectrum psychological and medical testing, and is vastly more accurate than any other matchmaking services. Eden doesn’t take failure lightly, and the suicide of one of their most successful success stories is more than a professional offense: it may be a problem with their entire approach.

So Lash is called on the case, peeling back the layers of Eden’s operations in an attempt to understand what went wrong. His attempt to undergo the usual Eden candidate screening process goes wrong, but it’s not the only part of his life that is suddenly troublesome: All around him, annoyances and threats pile up, from suddenly-unpaid bills to mysterious calls to toll booth passes suddenly not working.

And for all of the novel’s faults, the first half works well. Faced with an intriguing mystery (a foolproof matchmaking process; a suicide between a seemingly perfect couple), readers are asked to follow along the mystery. Some of the best moments in Death Match are strictly procedural, as something is explained to us via the protagonist, and we get to look at a complicated process. Mystery and secrets can do much to lead a reader along, and I’ve got not problem with that part of the novel.

No, the troubles start when the AI is introduced. At that point (and maybe even before), experienced readers will look at the book’s remaining 200 pages and wonder how long Child is going to take to tell us that, as in all technothrillers, it’s the AI whodunit. The rest of the book is considerably less graceful than the first half, all the way down to the evil machines “spitting sparks and belching ever darker gouts of smoke” [P.367] Ah yes, sparks and smoke; sure signals of evil computer engineering mastery.

As for the rest, well, it’s pretty much routine for Child: clean prose, slightly tepid pacing when not uncovering secrets, conventional end. Tons of issues are left unexplored, but the mechanics of high-tech matchmaking are relatively interesting and that’s pretty much the only thing saving the book from complete formula-photocopying. It’ll do if you’re stuck on a beach, in a plane or on a bus. Beyond those desperate situations, though, there are better choices.

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