It's been several years since the mother/daughter writing team known as P.J. Tracy had a new book in their Monkeewrench series, but SHOOT TO THRILL, published this year, was well worth the long wait. This is one of those series that doesn't, necessarily, have to be read in order. You can pick up quickly enough who is who and what is what if you pay attention as you go along. But if you're a stickler, I'd say, read the first book, the much heralded MONKEEWRENCH, then the second, LIVE BAIT, then skip around as you like. Or just pick up the latest one and dive right in - it's not rocket science, just damn good writing.
The computer looms large as both friend and foe in this latest thriller set in the mid-west and featuring the always welcome, wise-cracking detective duo of Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth, the homicide aces of the Minnesota Police Department. And of course, where and when computers are involved, can the whiz-kid team of Grace McBride's Monkeewrench crew be far behind? This time out, the Feds get involved when, much to their chagrin, they, too, must ask for help from Monkeewrench: the country's top computer software designing crime-fighters who have honed hacking to a fine art. The book introduces, too, a new character, John Smith (yes, but that's his name) a strait-laced, near-retirement FBI agent who quickly becomes a favorite. Smith has been sent to work with the Monkeewrench team as a sort of liaison and general government 'minder'. But he quickly turns into a fellow conspirator and the charm of the thing is watching him slide down that slippery slope.
When murders on video start popping up online - not staged murders, but the real thing - the authorities are stumped. No sooner do they void the video, another one pops up in its place. The murders are occurring all over the board, across the country. Getting a handle on this sort of thing seems a never ending nightmare and the detectives spend a great deal of time cursing the day the internet was born while their Monkeewrench allies, Grace, Harley, Roadrunner, and Annie, use their talents to try and track down a bunch of sociopaths using the worldwide web for gruesome show and tell.
The thing is: except for the video treatment, there is no one modus-operandi, the crimes are all over the board and involve victims who seem not to have anything in common except that their brutal deaths have been flashed on computer screens all over the world. Add to the mix, the deadly copycat element and all in all, not a happy time is to be had in Minnesota.
When FBI agent John Smith first meets with the Monkeewrench crew, ground rules need to be established if anyone is to get anything done that might actually help. Here is John confronted by Annie and Harley:
"Oh, come on. Let's cut to the chase here. You've got posts of real live murders the FBI can't track, at least not legally, because the servers are registered in countries where U.S. access is denied. So what do you do? You call in a bunch of salivating hackers and tell tham that if they try to access these foreign servers they would be in violation of international law. Good grief. Talk about dragging a slab of bacon in front of a bunch of wild dogs."
"I can assure you that was not the Bureau's intention."
"Yeah, right. And these eyelashes are real. The point is, we don't give a gnat's ass about your text files. Don't even havbe to look them over. But if you want us to write software that differentiates real murders from staged ones, we need to download the videos of those bodies in five cities."
"I am not authorized to give you permission to do that."
Harley moved the mass of his body a step closer to Smith. To his credit, the smaller man held his ground. "We're going to download the videos. Are you going to fink us out?"
It took Smith a minute to remember what 'fink' meant. He had to go back several decades. "I do not believe you will do that."
"I just told you we're going to do that."
"Yes you did. But in my opinion, that was bravado. I do not think it was sincere; therefore I will not report it."
Annie tucked her hands into her hips and tapped a toe on the marble floor. Agent Smith watched the toe moving up and down, mesmerized. "I can't decide if your instructions are to handle us just like those other poor fools at the seminar, or if you might actually be a good guy."
"I have never been accused of being a good guy."
"Uh-huh. You want some chili before we get to work, darlin?"
"No, thank you very much for the offer."
"How about a beer?" Harley raised his own bottle.
"FBI agents do not drink alcoholic beverages on duty, sir."
"Yeah, yeah and FBI agents are always on duty, right?"
"Well, I guess that makes my goals pretty clear here. Before you leave I'm going to see you totally snockered with three belly dancers sitting on your chest and a really great Cuban cigar stuck between your teeth. Let's get up to the office."
Despite the vicious crimes at the heart of this latest Monkeewrench adventure, a gallows sort of humor is always to be expected when these characters work their magic: the computer crew skirting the law while Magozzi and Gino pretend not to see. But it's the interwoven relationships and how they work (or not) that makes this series of books so intriguing, and despite the dark crimes, so much fun to read. This is one of the few times, by the way, when women writing male characters get it just right. (Especially tricky I would think, when it's two women writing as one.)
Magozzi and Gino.....stopped at Tommy Espinoza's office on the way to Homicide, primarily because Gino had heard the crackle of a bag that sang to him like sirens on a sea cliff.
"Gino, it's eight o'clock in the morning."
"What's your point? I hear the sound of salt and fat and I obey."
"Could be a bag of raisins."
Gino snorted and pushed past him into Espinoza's office, central command for the department's computer division. Tommy looked up from his monitor, his dark Hispanic coloring making his blue eyes strangely intense. Gino always thought they were about the same color as the blue stuff people put in toilet bowls.
"Hey guys." He automatically handed Gino a bag of Cheetos.
"Not those. I can never get the all that orange stuff off. Angela will find a speck and I'll be busted. Got anything white?"
"Sure. Popcorn, potato chips..." Tommy spread his arms expansively toward a metal tabel that looked like the snack aisle at Cub Foods. "Rummage away, my friend. Mi casa, su casa."
While Gino went on a cholesterol hunt, Magozzi looked at the monitor Tommy was working on. "You're on YouTube?"
"Sad, but true. We who serve the public must sometimes walk the sewers. Take a look at this." He tapped the screen where a streaming video showed five girls beating the crap out of another girl trying to crawl away."
"Jeez. Is that for real?"
"This one is. A lot of the ugly stuff that gets posted is staged - Spielberg wannabes trying to outdo each other - but some of them are the real McCoy."
Gino walked over to look, his hand deep in a package of potato chips. "Hey. I saw that on the news. High school girls from someplace advertising stupid. They put the girl in the hospital, then they posted it with all their faces showing. How dumb is that?"
"Thank God for the dumb ones. The Brits are having a ball monitoring these sites, ID'ing the perps then heading right for their digs like they had a written invitation. But every now and then, a smart one surfaces, and that's when it gets really scary. Take a look at this. This is Cleveland, four months ago." He fiddled with the mouse until a new video appeared, this one showing a man from the back, beating another one to the ground.
"Jesus," Gino said. "Why the hell do the servers let this kind of s**t on the Web, and why the hell aren't we shutting them down? My kids could see this, for God's sake."
"Take it easy, buddy," Tommy passed him a Butterfinger as if that would cure everything.
As the crimes online escalate, they strike at the heart of all Minnesotans and the world watches 24/7 on CNN; Monkeewrench and their cop cohorts work round the clock to stem what appears to be one too many cracks in an already severely compromised dam.
This is a terrific, page-turning thriller. It looks like P.J. Tracy is back in business.
To learn more about P.J. Tracy and the Monkeewrench series, please go here.