DARK ORIGINS is the first in a series of novels titled ‘Level 26’. The title of the series is taken from the FBI’s ‘scale of evil’, in which killers are ranked from 1-25 depending on their evil. Ted Bundy, for example, rated a 22. Anthony Zuiker, who created the CSI phenomenon, has created a serial killer called Sqweegel, who rates a 26. Ex-FBI agent Steve Dark, who has investigated Sqweegel in the past with devastating consequences for his family, is recruited on pain of death to track down the serial killer.
The novel takes a conceptual multi-media approach, as it offers internet links every 20 pages or so, inviting readers to log on to the web to see mini-films that enhance and advance the plot.
The concept behind DARK ORIGINS is a fascinating one, and the book may well prove the first mainstream offering of its kind. The development of e-readers such as Kindle and the Sony Reader, and now the iPad, all of which have internet access built-in, will allow for complex multi-media interactivity with a story. This novel may well be the first offering in a revolutionary approach to publishing.
Unfortunately, the novel itself is poor. The serial killer story shows no signs of flagging in terms of popularity, yet it is very quickly becoming the most hackneyed idea in crime fiction. Zuiker’s approach is to make his serial killer the most evil, the most intelligent, and the most accomplished in the history of serial killers, but the net effect is to render Sqweegel a parody of the sub-genre. It’s hard to believe that anyone old enough to read will be gullible enough to take this novel seriously.
Sqweegel has killed numberless victims and remains at large. This is due largely to the fact that the leaves behind no forensic traces whatsoever - this may be an in-joke by CSI creator Zuiker to his fans, or it may be an attempt to put clear blue water between the CSI project and the novel.
Sqweegel is also notable for his cruelty to his victims, physical, emotional and sexual. These aspects are delivered in graphic prose at times, and the effect is repulsive. Particularly repulsive is a chapter in which Sqweegel embarks on a lengthy anal rape of three students, using various implements; and while the description itself is disgusting, what marks the chapter out as especially repellent is that it serves no purpose in the grand scheme of the narrative, other than to confirm a brutality the reader has already acknowledged.
Sqweegel is also the kind of serial killer who has, apparently, limitless financial reserves that enable him to globe-trot, utilising private jets, in order to pursue his relentless killing. He is also irritatingly omniscient, capable of observing his prey and his pursuers, it seems, simultaneously. He is also implausibly clever and resourceful - he has, for example, managed to slip aboard the Airforce Two jet in order to plant a listening device.
The killer’s nemesis, Steve Dark, is just as clichéd. He is a loner, a burnt-out former FBI operative who nurses a deep and abiding loathing of Sqweegel, who murdered his adoptive family when it appeared Dark was getting too close to discovering the killer. When we meet him, however, Dark - a reclusive, alcoholic shell - has somehow managed to recover his humanity enough to persuade the impossibly beautiful, tender and understanding Sibby to share his life, to the extent that she is pregnant with their child. She is, as if it needs to be said, an artist.
These are the basic plot blocks with which co-writer Duane Swierczynski - working from a 60-page outline provided by Zuiker - builds his story. The pace is swift, with short, snappy chapters that end in cliff-hangers, a la the James Patterson style. Swierczynski is an excellent noir author, and there are flashes here and there of his talent. However, quoting the famous Raymond Chandler line about the tarantula on angel food in the midst of the appalling reductionism that is DARK ORIGINS is a bad move, as it simply reminds the reader of how poor the novel is by comparison with Chandler’s - or, indeed, virtually any other plausible, realistic novel.
I can’t stress enough how shoddy this novel is. Other than what it represents as a bridge of sorts between the current and future models of publishing, it has virtually no redeeming features at all. In its predictability, exaggerated clichés, torture-porn aspirations and dumbed-down prose, it has few equals, or at least not yet. If this is the future of publishing, then God help us all. - Declan Burke
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.