Monday, August 08, 2005

Review: The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks and Death's Little Helpers by Peter Spiegelman

They're watching us: From ever-present eyes to private eyes, latest by Hawks, Spiegelman look at thrillers past and future.

The recent terrorist attacks in London made it clear how useful modern surveillance techniques can be to authorities. Within 24 hours of both attacks, Scotland Yard circulated detailed, color photographs of the suspects, which were then reprinted on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. The photos quickly led to tips and arrests.

Nevertheless, not everyone approves of being monitored in such a close, near-Orwellian fashion.

Early on in his new novel, "The Traveler," John Twelve Hawks points out that there are "four million closed-circuit television cameras in Britain, about one camera for every fifteen people" (although a recent study suggests there are actually as many as 7 million such cameras) and an average person working in London is "photographed by three hundred different surveillance cameras during the day." According to Hawks, the cameras are monitored by software capable of noting anomalies, such as a person lingering in front of a government building, and continually scan a database of known criminals for matches. It's enough to make anyone who's the least bit camera-shy squirm with discomfort.

The world of "The Traveler" resembles our own, aside from a pair of secret organizations dueling unseen for world domination. On the dark side is the Evergreen Foundation. Operating from their Westchester, N.Y., campus headquarters, they act as the public front for the Tabula, a group of fascist, crew-cut control freaks who are guided by the ideas of real-life 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

Bentham designed the Panopticon, which Hawks desribes as a "model prison where one observer could monitor hundreds of prisoners while remaining unseen." Prisoners are isolated in cells and continually backlit, the idea being that if prisoners thought they were being continually observed, even when they were not, they would soon learn to police their own behavior. (One of the prisons that applied Bentham's principles for architecture was Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.)

The Tabula and their operators have hacked into all those aforementioned cameras, not to mention all global computer networks, thus giving them eyes and ears almost everywhere in pursuit of their enemies, the Travelers.

The Travelers are humans endowed with the ability to project their "light" through the various realms of reality while leaving their bodies behind (think "The Matrix" here). At the point when the novel opens, all known Travelers have been wiped out by Tabula assassins, also known as the Brethren. With all Travelers dead, the Travelers' personal security force -- mystical sword-wielding bodyguards called Harlequins (think "Highlander" here) -- are out of work. As we meet one of the novel's heroes, an English Harlequin named Maya, she has forsaken violence and is working 9 to 5 at a London industrial design firm. Soon, she's called into action to protect a pair of suspected Travelers, twin brothers living in California -- one named Gabriel, a thrill-seeking rebel, the other, Michael, a cynical capitalist.

Hawks' polemic can be a bit heavy-handed. Characters in "The Traveler" refer to our reality as "the Vast Machine" and those ignorant humans who labor senselessly in pursuit of meaningless material wealth as "drones." Fortunately, his stump speeches are often brief, and overall, this is one supremely paranoid, occasionally adolescent, but mostly engrossing summertime beach read. Added bonus: It's billed as the first in a trilogy. With all of this surveillance, how could someone, especially someone famous, disappear in the middle of a place like New York City? The simple answer is that America isn't as blanketed with surveillance cameras as European cities.

The disappearance of a well-known Wall Street stock picker, Gregory Danes, is at the heart of John Spiegelman's novel "Death's Little Helpers." Where Hawks' book is a great example of the imaginative fringe of mainstream fiction, Spiegelman's is a well-executed traditional detective story.

Like Spiegelman's first book, the Shamus Award-winning "Black Maps," this, too, stars private investigator John March, a retired cop, recovering alcoholic and black sheep scion of a rich banking family. March is hired by Danes' ex-wife to track down the alimony check-writing man, and soon March is bribing people for information, interrogating the man's colleagues, friends and family, and looking for motive. This, coupled with diligent Internet research and head-clearing runs through Central Park, puts him on a warm trail.

Soon, March picks up a tail of his own who tries to coerce him into abandoning the case. It appears some people might benefit from Danes staying disappeared, including his shady half-brother, a financial TV show talking head, a Ukrainian mobster, assorted business rivals, and even Danes' investment firm. No surveillance necessary.

Spiegelman, a former Wall Streeter, knows the money racket. He moves the plot along briskly, connecting the dots between the principal suspects, all the while offering pointed riffs on big-time banking and investment schemes. It's a combination of old-school sleuthing with an up-to-date storyline, and a compelling read.

Its convincing conventionality is palate-cleaning after the far-out fantasies of John Twelve Hawks.

With changes in the air in New York City after the London attacks, one wonders how long it will be before Hawks' vision of a super-surveilled Earth becomes a reality and March's flatfooted manhunt gets fully supplanted by face-recognition software and a million clicks of his mouse.

This article originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman

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