Book Review of the Week: The Last Hack: A Jack Parlabane Thriller
By Christopher Brookmyre
Atlantic Monthly Press
The Last Hack is the latest in the Jack Parlabane series. Beginning in 1996, they focus on an investigative journalist’s digging into mysteries and the ensuing misadventures. At this point in the series, Parlabane is in the middle of a personal and career low point—he’s treading water, trying to find a job in a rapidly disintegrating industry, and his past corner-cutting and brushes with the law have put him in an increasingly precarious position. There are frequent references to his previous triumphs and potentially minor oblique spoilers to earlier books in the series, so readers should be warned.
Parlabane is down but not quite out, and The Last Hack traces what might be his last chance to stay in the journalism business and start rebuilding his career. Yet Parlabane is not really the central character of The Last Hack. That distinction—and twin designation of the book’s emotional center—goes to Samantha Morpeth, a teenaged computer hacker who is being forced to do the bidding of a mysterious and probably malevolent figure as punishment for poking around areas of cyberspace where she wasn’t supposed to go. Samantha is compelled to serve as her younger sibling’s guardian while her mother is in prison for a crime that she may or may not have committed. Unwilling to remain under her extorter’s thumb, Samantha asks—then forces– Parlabane to help her dig into a rapidly expanding cyber-mystery to figure out who is behind a massive conspiracy.
Brookmyre seems a lot more comfortable exploring the world of modern journalism than the world of hacking and cyberspace. Technical terms are bandied about, and the descriptions of hacking situations seem reminiscent of other popular cyber-thrillers. Lacking much knowledge of hacking myself, I am uncertain as to how realistic the details are, but while the scenes in the journalism world seemed real, darkly comic, and slyly satiric, the hacking/technological scenes seem comparatively cold and inauthentic in comparison. A novel skewering contemporary trends in journalism could have dazzled. As it stands, this tale of hacking and techno-babble feels like the author is trying to wear a garment that is too loose in some places and far too tight in others.
The Last Hack finds its heart in the second half, as the partnership between Parlabane and Samantha develops. At several points, a connection between the middle-aged journalist and the young hacker is teased, and had the relationship between the two continued in the expected direction, it could have led to a rich and redemptive character arc for Parlabane in future novels. However, the resolution of their connection is handled clumsily, the ensuing revelations are ultimately unsatisfying, and all of the built-up potential bursts like a cheap balloon. Brookmyre may have been trying to subvert expectations, but the ultimate result is a big disappointment that sours the novel’s end.
The Last Hack is a moderately effective thriller, but the character development that held such promise and added warmth and richness to the book is squandered. When one big question regarding the main characters is cleared up near the end, the book’s emotional core stumbles and never recovers.