As someone who works closely with computers I often dread seeing shows that are about computer whizzes of have computers in them. Too many times you see an actor or actress clapping away on a keyboard as you see the monitor in front of them do things that are either impossible or have no correlation to their typing. Once again this may seem like a minor issue to most people, but again it annoys me! Shows like 'Chuck' have a more realistic interpretation of an IT guys skill level (i.e. pull out wire, blow into wire, plug in wire - fixed). Imagine then trying to write about modern technology. Describing computer work is dull enough, but getting it factual is also a chore. One author I love has always seemed a little out of touch with technology in his books is John Sandford. Imagine my surprise then that I realised he had written a series of novels based around a computer hacker - things are going to get messy...
Kidd is a computer hacker who has become part of a network of people who work outside the law. At the centre of this group is a man called Bobby who has just been found beaten to death. If this is not bad enough it seems that the killer has stolen Bobby's laptop, a devise crammed with state secrets. Slowly, but surely, over the next few days state secrets embarrassing congressmen and senators are being leaked to the press. There are a lot of nervous politician's around and they will do anything to get the information, include killing people. For Kidd and his hacker pals the information on the laptop is not for blackmail purposes, but to prevent their identities from being discovered. Kidd is in a race to find the laptop being held by a lunatic, either he gets it or he and his friends are toast.
Sandford is best known for writing a series of books around charismatic copper Jack Davenport. This is a Kidd novel and in many ways is similar. Kidd is an aging but cool guy who wants to go through life with some adventure, but mostly quietly. Like Davenport he is charismatic and good looking without being arrogant. What differs is that Kidd works outside the law to help people. He does not have the network of agencies at his disposal like Davenport does and therefore must work with a selection of shady pals. This gives the books a slightly darker and more hyped feel as you are always aware that Kidd could be killed or arrested even though we know he is the good guy.
The reason that 'The Hanged Man's Song' is not as good as the 'Prey' series of novels is not due to the characters (which are almost as strong), but the structure. The 'Prey' books nearly always run two stories parallel, that of the killer and that of the cops. This means that we understand the motives for the murders and gain some sympathy for the police. Therefore, when Davenport inevitably catches up with the killer we do not mind that he dishes out a little extra justice as we know the killer's dark heart. This did not happen at all in 'Hanged'; instead we follow Kidd throughout and only witness the bad guy through him. I think this was a mistake as Sandford created a baddy who was borderline deranged and offered little reason for it. I would have thought that the world of hackers was known for powerful killing types and would have liked to understand what drove someone these levels or extreme violence.
There is also another issue with the structure and this is to do with the length of sections within chapters. Sandford has tried to increase the sense of pace by giving lots of small sections within a chapter that keeps the story moving forwards. In practice this means that some sections end up being only a paragraph or two long and for me became disjointed. It's a shame that these basics would be wrong as the rest of the writing is good as the story itself was engrossing and the dialogue realistic.
For anyone interested in reading a top crime thriller I would perhaps advise not to read 'Hanged Man's Song' first. Instead I would point them towards Sandford's other more sound series of 'Prey' novels. These books are like the Kidd books in that they are exciting, fast paced and have a good lead character. However, the 'Prey' books do not suffer from an underdeveloped enemy and poor structure. 'Hanged' is by no means a bad book, but in terms of Sandford's excellent back catalogue it pales into averageness.
Author: John Sandford
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