This is one hell of a ride. If you’re looking for a book to keep you up and turning the pages, this is for you. Adrian McKinty, author of the Sean Duffy series set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, has shown his versatility in producing a tight, intricate thriller which unfolds with escalating horror.
Rachel Klein is pulled into a waking nightmare when her child is kidnapped and will only be released when she has paid her ransom, kidnapped another child, and then demanded that child’s parents pay a ransom and in turn kidnap another child. As a sinister plot device, harnessing the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child is genius. It is also limitless, and Rachel has just become its next link.
Who runs this psychopathic business? The reader gradually finds out through McKinty’s agile shifting of perspective. For some chapters we are in Rachel’s point of view, living her collapsing world, but then we meet a pair of twins who, as children, delight in the manipulation of other kids. Who are they? We also enter the lives of the reluctant kidnappers and get into the headspace of Rachel’s daughter, the victim. Kylie’s voice is authentic.
She knows she shouldn’t have gotten into the vehicle. That’s how girls vanish …You don’t get in the vehicle, you turn around and you run, run, run.
But she doesn’t. She has a gun to her head.
While The Chain is a twisted adaptation of cyber extortion, its trade being children, the business model is not too far from the truth. I read this book, serendipitously, while covering a seminar on cyber-crime and Internet security. McKinty has done his research. The profile of The Chain’s criminal masterminds is accurate. Hackers are not hoodie-clad misfits living in their mothers’ basements. They are smart, tertiary educated, and use their cyber skills to solve more and more arcane intellectual challenges. The spyware, malware and intricate cyber breaches used to take over data systems is now so sophisticated that these extortionists set up helplines, hire translators and develop navigation tools to allow their victims to make the transaction as smoothly as possible. The corporate crowd attending the seminar I covered were advised to ‘park the criminality’ and see them as businesses.
McKinty prises open a conundrum: we have used information to defend ourselves, to minimise our vulnerabilities, but have we become hostage to it? Social media that broadcasts our every move has now been overtaken in its sheer scope by the Internet of Things: baby monitors over a cradle can tell you where a baby is, when she is sleeping, and how far away her parents might be; GPS trackers in kids’ shoes; doorbells that record every coming and going. McKinty’s commentary on the technology is timely. We have become accomplices to our own surveillance—we enter the Panopticon willingly.
And if one turns to crime—to rescue a child, to kidnap another, to buy narcotics—the information you need is there. When Rachel breaks into a house, Pete, her brother-in-law, asks how she learnt to break the lock. ‘Google,’ she replies. Of course. When searching for a child to kidnap, she turns to Facebook:
There are a breathtaking number of people whose profiles and posts are public and can be viewed by anyone. George Orwell was wrong, she thinks. In the future, it won’t be the state that keeps tabs on everyone … it will be the people … We are our own secret police.
As the reader becomes aware of the operation of the Chain, the secrecy, the reach of its tentacles, it is impossible not to think of Stasiland, Anna Funder’s powerful examination of East Germany’s secret police. At its height, it was thought that one person in four was in its fold reporting on their own community—family, friends, neighbours. Anybody can be watching. When Rachel sees a strange man look at her and then nod ‘grimly’, she thinks, ‘Is he another one of The Chain’s agents?’
Another time, Rachel is fiercely punched in the stomach, in public, by another stranger. A message from The Chain. The Chain is a perfect example of the gig economy, our outsourced culture where the victims themselves do all the work. Once corrupted by their own complicity, they cannot turn to authorities. The operation runs on fear and they are self-policing.
While The Chain multiplies, its corruption spreads like an oil slick. Doing evil makes us evil. Its insidious takeover of our ‘better nature’ is part of the its power. Rachel becomes aware of the contempt in her voice as she discusses the mother of the boy she is about to kidnap: ‘She remembers that Tacitus line about how you always hate those you have wronged.’
Rachel is on the road when she realises what she has to do to get her child back. She pulls ‘Into the slow lane, into the medium lane, into the fast lane.’ You will too, and don’t forget: the best kept secrets are those hidden in plain sight.
Adrian McKinty The Chain Hachette 2019 PB 368pp $32.99