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Book Review: Level 26: Dark Origins by Anthony Zuiker and Duane Swierczynski

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Level 26: Dark Origins, the self-purported first digi-novel, was fascinating. Anthony Zuiker, best known as the father of CSI, has used a fantastic blending of novel and short film to make his book come to life. He is a writer, producer, and creative force behind the CSI franchise: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, and CSI: NY. I watch and enjoy all three series regularly. I heard Zuiker interviewed about this new digi-novel, co-authored with Duane Swierczynski, on my local country music radio station. He was palpably excited about the book’s release and the book’s revolutionary format.

The concept is simple. Every few chapters a note in the book guides you to log onto the website, WordsInLink. When you log in and set up your account, you have a choice of joining publically or privately. After the initial registration, enter the code from the novel to view each mini-clip. Each mini-clip bridges written word and visual experiences. Zuiker and his team are calling it a cyber-bridge. The cyber-bridges are terrifying, realistic, insightful, and very well done. The book was much more vivid after viewing the short films. And the music soundtrack is creepy and just as vivid to the auditory senses as the visual components. The voice of the serial killer, Sqweegel, is frightening.

Typically readers, particularly readers of series novels, build their own images of characters as they read. The concept of having those characters formed partly by the imagination of the reader and partly by the author’s vision was an interesting exercise. The closest analogy is listening to a pre-Internet radio program — then suddenly the host of the program is asking you to go to his or her site. As you look at them for the first time, you realize that they are nothing like you had imagined. That was my experience with several characters in the novel. The government agents looked much like I had anticipated. I had seen enough episodes of 24 to have clear pictures of what the ruggedly handsome older men looked like. Ironically, an actor from 24 actually plays one of those agents in the short scenes. Glenn Morshower plays Secret Service Agent Aaron Pierce in several seasons of 24, and also plays a government agent in Level 26. By contrast, my version of Dark, the former FBI agent working to find the serial killer, was very different than the film version.

International intrigue, well-written characters, government corruption, vulnerable traumatized agents in search of a depraved serial killer — all the makings of a compelling novel. Sqweegel is a Level 26 serial killer. Level 26 is the most depraved and evil of the serial killers. Law enforcement ranks their evil minds and deeds on a scale of 1 to 25. The writing is excellent in the manner of weaving in the mindset of the killer with the mindset of the men responsible for finding and stopping him.

The most innovative and exciting part of the digi-novel is that integrated reading of a book while pausing to watch video is now possible on a single handheld device. If you have a book reader with Internet capability, toggling between reading the novel and watching the bridges is seamless. Currently the ebook is available in common formats that serve a variety of devices: mobi, epub, Kindle, and Adobe formats. There is also a mobile phone application allowing viewers to read as well as view within the same device.

This seems to be the future of books. Think of the implications for textbook publishing. Small short reenactments of history can be mixed with written sources. Three-dimensional math shapes come to life between the pages of two-dimensional representations. Science labs can be shown in short film in addition to the written chemical formulas. Even some larger concepts of Earth tectonics or solar systems or subatomic particles can be more visualized. Zuiker and friends have given publishers a new model for interactive reading and learning. It’s a truly visionary approach. Another digi-novel is in production. Can’t wait!

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  • R. B. Lee

    Have been a fan of CSI for many years. Picked up a copy of Level 26 at a dollar store. After initial interest in what TV icon Zuiker might have to say, was propelled through 400 pages mostly out of curiosity to see if the juvenile writing style, the gaping plot holes and weak characterizations would eventually amount to something. Watched the first video and determined not to inflict any more on myself. Concluded that the price for this book was appropriate. Am now considering detoxing and getting sober from CSI.