“The Last Hack” by Christopher Brookmyre, Atlantic Monthly. 432 pp. $25
If, like me, you are a person who feels proud of having mastered the copy-and-paste maneuver on your computer, Christopher Brookmyre’s latest thriller, “The Last Hack,” will be intimidating at first. This is a tale filled with off-putting terms such as “metadata” and “sort filters.” But, if, like me, you are a technophobe who also loves good suspense fiction, you should stick with this story. That’s because unlike, say, the “Mission Impossible” films — with their bottomless trove of outlandish gizmos like Gecko gloves and exploding chewing gum — the techie jargon here is more decorative than essential. It’s an embellishment that lends credibility to one of the most ingenious thrillers I’ve read in a long time.
“The Last Hack” is composed of two storylines that are as elaborately knotted together as the Ethernet and printer cables on my office power strip. One narrative is told from the point of view of a young woman of color named Samantha “Sam” Morpeth. Sam is a teenage tech whiz who gives lie to the commonplace wisdom that, “there are no girls on the internet.” Because her mother is in jail for drug possession, Sam is the sole caretaker of her younger sister, Lilly, who has Down syndrome. Forced to leave school and work part time at a burger joint, Sam is desperately lonely and an easy target for bullies; the only place she feels strong is in the virtual world where she’s part of a group of ace hackers — all anonymous, of course — who’ve penetrated banks and businesses, mostly for the thrill of proving that they can. Here’s how Sam explains her situation: “Who I really am is the person that exists online. To me, that’s the world that matters. And in that world, I’m not pathetic, I’m not a victim, and I’m not a doormat. I’m a … supervillain.”
But, one night, Sam finds out that her anonymity has been breached: logging onto a closed chat site, she receives a “friend invitation” from someone called “Zodiac” urging her to join a new IRC channel “#blackmail.” As soon becomes creepily evident, Zodiac knows everything about Sam, including personal details about her family and hacking history. Zodiac demands that Sam steal the prototype and plans for a mysterious new product being developed by a secretive company named Synergis. If she doesn’t, the incriminating information Zodiac has on Sam will be sent to the police, which will send her to jail and Lilly into institutional care.
This is the point where veteran journalist Jack Parlabane (the hero of eight previous thrillers by Brookmyre) gets tangled up in Sam’s troubles. Some time ago, Sam was Jack’s online source for some crucial information that revitalized his wheezing career. He owes her, big time. So it is that the crusty old investigative reporter and the determined teenage girl join forces to infiltrate Synergis and, ultimately, neutralize Zodiac. Think a techie version of “True Grit.”
Brookmyre is a pro at slowly injecting ever more anxiety into scenes where the suspense sweat-o-meter is already hovering in the red zone. The central moment in this novel is the Synergis break-in, with Jack making his way deeper into the company headquarters and Sam crouched over her laptop at home, expertly directing him via a state-of-the art earpiece around CCTV cameras and into chambers protected by encrypted passwords that have to be cracked against a tight deadline. Every couple of pages or so, a glitch occurs. (An office light goes on in the empty Synergis building! Lilly calls out for a bedtime story, distracting Sam at a critical moment! Jack remembers a memory stick still jammed into a computer port in another room!) All of this is delicious fun until things go seriously, sickeningly haywire.
The one thing critical to a good suspense novel is, well, suspense. But an extraordinary suspense novel has that extra something — a haunting setting, wit or, in the case of “The Last Hack,” the presence of an idiosyncratic, morally complex heroine. The immortal Lisbeth Salander, that other “girl on the Internet,” is brilliant, but deliberately difficult to cozy up to; Sam Morpeth is much more human and vulnerable. By the end of this novel, she’s not only hacked her way into high security sites like Synergis but into a reader’s affections, too.
Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.