Monday, May 2, 2011

An idle mind is the devil’s plaything

Devil's Plaything
by Matt Richtel

I first met Nat Idle when he appeared in Matt Richtel’s debut novel, Hooked. At the time, he won me over completely. It wasn’t merely that he was a likable, charming guy, it was that he exhibited my very favorite characteristic in a hero—fallibility. He wasn’t a superman. He was just an average guy doing the best he could under extraordinary circumstances. Nat narrates, “As a tough guy, I’m way out of my league; I’m a pen-wielding freelance writer, not James Bond, or James Dean; maybe James Taylor.”

And, at long last, he’s back. Let me start by saying that you don’t need to have read Hooked before reading Devil’s Plaything. Each book stands alone just fine. In this latest thriller, Nat has a buddy, and it’s not who you’d expect. His cohort in this misadventure is his elderly grandmother, Lane, with whom he has always been close. Lane, alas, has taken a turn for the worse. She is suffering dementia, but in recent weeks her decline has been precipitous. Nat realizes he really must spend more time with her, and it is on an outing to Golden Gate Park that the action begins.

While enjoying a leisurely sunset stroll, suddenly shots ring out, and Nat and Lane appear to be the targets. Well, Nat appears to be. Not everyone appreciates his occasional forays into investigative journalism. What could anyone have against a sweet octogenarian? What indeed? As this complex tale unfolds, Richtel seeds the book with any number of suspicious characters and red herrings. What is the deal with the high-strung manager of Lane’s assisted living facility? What is the secret from back in WWII that his grandmother has been keeping all these years? Who is “the blue man”? Why is Lane afraid of visiting the dentist? What is the story behind the Human Memory Crusade in which she’s been participating? And what is going on on Nat’s side of this mystery… What is his boss up to? Who is the mysterious investor Nat dubs “G.I. Chuck”? Who has delivered an encrypted thumb drive to him? Why? What does it say?

These are a lot of questions, and if the novel has a flaw, it’s just the sheer business of the plot. There are so many potential bad guys that, like Nat, you won’t know where to look next for answers. You will share some of his frustration, confusion, and paranoia. He asks, “Does the thumb drive have anything to do with the attack in the park and Grandma’s recent ramblings? Or is it coincidental, unrelated, some kind of joke?”

The pleasures of the novel, however, more than make up for any flaws. For starters, it’s a darn good mystery. I couldn’t unravel it on my own, and I seem to figure these things out all too often. It was nice being challenged. The story being told here is different; and as with his first novel, the plot veers off in unexpected directions, keeping readers on their toes. The relationship at the center of this novel isn’t typical, and it has a lot of heart. Both Nat and Lane are richly-drawn and appealing characters. And in addition to, you know, the fear and paranoia, there’s a lot of humor leavening the proceedings. San Francisco, where I live and the novel is set, takes more than a few pot shots: “I almost laugh at the idea of our nearly quintessential San Francisco death: gunned down by the driver of an environmentally friendly car.” “In San Francisco, you can get grief for carrying an obsolete gadget without a permit.” “The collective angst of several dozen drivers already frustrated by life’s deep unfairness—traffic, the Bay Area cost of living, the fact that they don’t yet own an iPad…”

Nat’s a witty guy, and it’s a lot of fun taking up space inside his head. He’s also a canny observer of the times we live in, and I have to credit the smart writing of his creator and counterpart, author Richtel. Matt Richtel not only shares a very similar name as his protagonist, but also the same day job—though he’s a considerably more successful journalist, having won a Pulitzer Prize writing for the New York Times a year ago. The man knows his way around a page and it shows. Looking ahead, I hope that Richtel can continue to find time for both fiction and non-fiction because clearly he excels at both.

NOTE:  This novel will be released in hardback from the Poisoned Pen Press on May 3, 2011.  For Readers who prefer to wait for the paperback, I'm pleased to tell you that you don't have to wait long.  The mass market paperback will be released by HarperCollins on May 31, 2011.  This is likewise the release date for the Kindle (and other e-book) editions of the novel.  So, pick your format, pre-order now, and you've got your first beach read of the summer lined up!

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