When the novel hackoff.com thudded through my letterbox, it was accompanied by a thick wodge of PR material, advertising that this publication is available in multiple formats – as a web serial, as a podcast, etc and proclaiming its status as a (such a hideous term) blook. My heart sank. Experience tells me that attention to new and experimental forms of publication is seldom accompanied by a same concentration on the basics such as storytelling, characterisation, writing quality and decent editing.
Yet, when I started in on the weighty 642 pages, I got a pleasant surprise. No Nobel prizes will to be won here, but it is a decently written, solidly plotted, entertaining thriller. Its USP (unique selling point), as some of its characters would say, is that the author, Tom Evslin, was in at the centre of the dotcom boom, having been the “cofounder and CEO of VoIP pioneer ITXC Corp, which went public in 1999”. And if it does, on occasions, read like a textbook on the subject of IPOs (Initial Public Offerings),and the detail of complex financial negotiations becomes overwhelming, well it is not that hard to skip a couple of pages, and pick it up again when the final figure is agreed.
There’s only one major structural flaw; the full events of 9/11 are laid out — again — despite at best a slight role in the plot. This looks like an attempt to jump on a fashionable bandwagon, without having anything to say.
But the story begins as a classic who-dunnit, with the death of Larry Lazard, the CEO of an internet security firm that had been struggling survive the dotcom crash. But was it suicide, or murder, and if so, who could have overcome the high-tech security system? Did the Palestinian contract have something to do with it? No one’s mourning the pushy, slimy Larry — who’d converted a conviction for stealing credit card numbers into his position — but they are struggling to keep alive the company (which unlike so many of its time does have a real product to sell).
The reader learns of the death through a Nasdaq stock graph, then a company press release, and about the state of the firm through the interchange on a chat room – which provides some of the funniest moments of the book. There are also transcripts of police interviews, screen-grabs and emails, but the format changes never overwhelm the narrative.
And decent attention has been paid to characterisation. There’s the nerdie, techie Dom, fundamentally decent, who finds his way to overcoming his fears through computer gaming and, even more of a surprise in the context, some decently developed female characters. Donna Langhorne, the chief financial officer of hackoff, who plays the sane, sensible voice of reason behind her boss’s wilder flights of pique, is memorable and believable, as is even Larry’s stay-at-home, but not doormat, wife, Louise.