It looks like a viral marketing campaign for a new horror movie: an internet-based short film of a person tied to a chair in a darkened room and the audience invited to vote on the method of death. Social-media savvy, reality TV viewers, who are accustomed to tweeting about and voting on show participants, seem to be immune to the consequences of their actions in voting or assume that it’s a set-up with actors. However, detectives Garcia and Hunter know it’s real: they’ve seen the bodies and have to track down the killer. No easy task when the killer is a software expert who knows how to evade being traced and is a meticulous planner. To complicate things further there’s no apparent link between the victims or any evidence that the victims knew the killer.
A cybercrime expert discovers that the internet-videos are only viewable within California because the killer has blocked IP addresses outside the state, the detectives realise the killer’s motives are personal. Both detectives realise that Hunter is the final intended victim although they don’t know how many other intended victims there are. When Garcia’s wife, Anna, is targeted, he can’t help but take it personally. The killer is seeking revenge, but why play out that revenge via internet videos? The method is clearly important and not just because the killer is a skilled software engineer with too much time on his hands. There’s a reason for the elaborate set up.
At the heart of the novel are questions about choice. Not in the sense of free will, but how does someone choose to react when they have been wronged by the choices of others. When someone has chosen to inflict injuries on another, how much of a choice does the injured party have in seeking recompense? Who chooses whether a homicide is justified or not?
Readers need not answer these questions though. “One by One” can still be read as a thriller, a cat and mouse game between police detectives and serial killer. The explanations of how the killer is using technology to evade being traced, to set up the voting systems and block users outside California are done credibly without jargon-heavy information dumps.
When the killer is unveiled, his motives aren’t just about revenge. For his viewpoint, he is using his skills to send a message to people who might choose to carry out similar actions without considering how such actions affect their targets. Chris Carter draws from his experience as a criminal psychologist to create a rounded character whose actions are both believable and empathetic. Garcia and Hunter are clear individuals too: not just moulded into mismatched characters or a good cop/bad cop binary as a shorthand for differentiating between two detectives. Their characters have developed from previous novels, but readers don’t need to have read any previous novels to understand their dynamic. Other characters, whether unique to this novel or met in previous novels, are drawn with care and attention to their back stories.
The plot uses contemporary devices such as videos uploaded to social networking sites and internet trolls, but is not completely reliant on those devices. With some tweaks, it could still work in the world before social networking. The killer’s motives and actions are dark, but neither gratuitously gruesome nor black enough to snuff out a faith in humanity. “One by One” is a quality thriller with an intelligent plot and finely-judged pace.
By Emma Lee