If you’re introducing to the world a singular new heroine, both eccentric and damaged, you may want to consider mixing in a cake bowl the DNA of Lincoln Rhyme and Lisbeth Salander. You may want to add a dash of Holmes and the scowling vulnerability of Chloe from 24. Dribble in a tot of Gregory House and then season with a pinch of Rear Window – and just the merest hint of the shabby tech of Torchwood. Let the recipe stew in a darkened flat for a lifetime and – voila – what you have is the first of the Amy Lane Mysteries.
Rosie Claverton’s fast-paced novel Binary Witness is an unashamed geeky mash-up of crime references. Her protagonist Amy Lane is an agoraphobic computer genius, wracked by anxiety attacks, who solves crime from her bolt hole somewhere in Cardiff. And, of course, we’re not talking parking violations.
Boot up the blurb:
Police detectives rely on Amy Lane to track the digital debris of their most elusive criminals—when she’s not in the throes of a panic attack. After two students disappear in Cardiff, Amy uncovers photographic evidence that they’ve been murdered. From the safety of her computer, she looks through the city’s digital eyes to trace the steps of a killer.
Amy’s investigation requires footwork, however, and the agoraphobic genius can’t hack it alone. She turns to her newly-hired cleaner, ex-con Jason Carr. Jason is fascinated by both Amy and the work, and can’t refuse even when she sends him into situations that risk returning him to prison.
The killer strikes again and again, and Amy and Jason are the only investigators closing in on him. But Amy’s psyche is cracking under the strain, and Jason’s past is catching up with him. To stop the next murder, they must hold their unconventional partnership together at any cost.
There’s plenty to like in Binary Witness. It has an offbeat geeky charm – fun and knowing and full of sly crime and pop culture references. The set-pieces – a couple of long sequences in a hospital and at a train station – are really exciting, and Claverton really nails Cardiff’s vibrant cityscape, its young tribes. Its street gangs and students, the bars and clubs, the social media hubs. Claverton’s eventual revelation of the identity of the killer is a terrific sleight of hand.
What Claverton does really well is give a real sense of how people exist in two worlds now: in the real world, rarely hidden from the CCTV that follows their every move in public, and online, where they can be increasingly tracked and traced, hunted from afar like prey in the jungle. It’s great fun watching Amy doing her thing in the dark nest of her flat, on a computer called Aeon with which she has an oddly romantic attachment. Bringing up public records, plucking information from online forums and analysing sound waves, watching the world in her own fortress of solitude.
The author is also a scriptwriter and her gallery of characters, such as Amy and Jason, the police detectives Bryn and Owain, and her visiting profiler Eleanor Deaver – you see what she did there? – enjoy the kind of easy relationship you’d perhaps see in tightly-formatted cop series on Sky Living.
I would have liked to have seen more conflict among her cast, maybe. The relationships are touching and ring true, and Amy is an enjoyably flinty character – both imperious and vulnerable, like all our favourite geniuses – but Jason is perhaps less well-defined, to my mind. He’s an ex-con supposedly with a history of violence in street gangs, but he’s also a pussycat who loves his mum and his sister, is devoted to Amy and the old ladies he cleans for.
After some initial suspicion, Jason seems to work happily alongside Cardiff’s finest and charm his way in just about anywhere. He gets hit over the bonce, and gets into the sack with a victim’s flat-mate, he takes part in chases and, as Amy’s representative on earth, races across the city – but a few more rough edges would maybe give him more bite.
Amy, enclosed in her flat, humming with the sound of servers, remains something of an enigma at the end, her backstory not fully explored, but with another book called Code Runner on the way, you get the feeling that Jason’s going to be running around Cardiff for quite some time yet.
Binary Witness is out now, published on the Carina Press, which means you can download it right now.
You may also remember that a few weeks back Rosie did one of Crime Thriler Fella’s hugely-prestigious Intel Interviews. To find out more about Amy, Binary Witness and the book’s path to publication, go here.