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The Broken Window

by Jeffery Deaver

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The Broken Window

© Simon & Schuster

Fastidious author Jeffery Deaver has his ace forensic specialist and consultant for the NYPD, Lincoln Rhymes, come up against a mastermind killer who has unlimited access to the world's most detailed bank of data on the people of the world. That's you and me, and the implication is clear: the possibility of our most personal information falling into the hands of a serial killer fills us with dread, and it forms the basis of the considerable suspense Deaver builds to a crescendo when Amelia Sachs, Rhymes' beautiful partner and paramour, falls into a deadly maniac's hands.

Rhymes, whose physical condition after a terrible accident has left him bound to a wheelchair, is working on a case in Europe - an attempt to outfox an old enemy - when he learns that his estranged cousin Arthur has been charged with first-degree murder. Turning his and his team's full analytic and investigative attention to this shocking turn of events, Rhymes proceeds with the knowledge that (1) the charge is backed up with undeniable evidence and (2) there's no way Arthur could have done it. So just how is this frameup being perpetrated?

After a close examination of the crime's details, particularly the source of the pay phone call to 911 that brought law enforcement down on Arthur, Rhymes and Sachs wonder if the perp has struck before with the same modus operandi . When they find a previous murder that parallels this one in its operational aspects, their frameup theory gains ground and they open a file on the killer, referring to him as "522," for the date.
Tipped off to a new crime and false accusation in progress, they set a trap to surprise their target, thinking they might close this case in record time. Their man is wilier than they imagined, however, and, despite his lax overconfidence, he manages to escape, relieving himself of the "evidence" he planned to plant for the frameup. When Sachs' astute study of the suspect's escape route leads her to the evidence cache in a trash bin, there's no doubt that they have zeroed in on their culprit. But, the mystery of how he does what he does remains. How can this killer know so much about the victim of a crime he's about to commit, and about the person he's going to set up as the false perpetrator? And, then there's the question of motivation. Why's he doing it?

The questions lead the team to the obscure practice of data mining and to SSD, Strategic Systems Datacorp, a company in the business of selling information obtained by advanced technical methods to record every detail of people's lives from thousands of sources. Reducing people to 16-digit codes, its system canvases such places as credit card companies, banks, government records, stores, court clerks, DMV departments, hospitals, insurance companies and RFID chips that are planted in products to transmit an ongoing stream of data about the product owner's movements.
The company will tell you that their clients are strictly vetted, that their business depends on absolute security against illegitimate applications even if the required technology must be more powerful and advanced than the Pentagon's or the U.S. Mint's. "Firewalls on their firewalls on their firewalls," as Rhyme's computer expert Szarnak puts it. Rogue access just isn't possible.

But 522's string of robberies/rapes/murders/frameups challenges all assumptions. How is he penetrating the system's "data pens" which are cross referenced and guarded electronically 24/7? An unauthorized breach would require an intruder to hit at least three or four separate servers. Only senior officers of the firm have such access, and, to Rhyme and company, they're the first of the suspects.

As Deaver spins his tale, he enters the mind of his killer, providing us with a running monologue of his thoughts, plans and collective psychoses. We see the villain referring to people as "sixteens," in the parlance of SSD's techie lingo. The author also keeps us apprised of Arthur Rhyme's gruesome experiences in prison in chapters alternating with the detectives' ongoing analytic process that may be the most exacting in the crime fiction genre - certainly the most reliant on discipline and brainpower with a side-specialty of intuition.
Deaver began his Rhymes-Sachs stories with the exemplary The Bone Collector, which was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. Though Deaver gets no credit for it, his Rhymes series may well have contributed to the arrival and success of all the CSI series crowding the TV guides. Arguable, but he clearly got there first - recognizing our fascination with the art and science of crime-solving forensics and with the brilliance of its practitioners.

Deaver's own level of acute craftsmanship is reflected as much in the intellectual worthiness of his antagonist as in his heroes, concocting challenges that live high on the scale of cunning and genius. The resulting body of work places him at or comfortably near the top of anyone's list of major mystery authors - a position that shows no sign of diminishment. Deaver is an author who habitually gives you 400 pages of keen pursuit and, always, your money's worth.

As for the level of data mining Deaver describes, for the moment we can relax. It isn't at the technological level that the story suggests just yet. But, it may not be that far away, either. It's something our politicians might want to ponder and they might want to start their considerations with The Broken Window.
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