Title: Man Overboard
Author: J. A. Jance
Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster
New York Times bestselling author J. A. Jance has been writing murder mysteries since 1985. She currently has three popular series; featuring J. P. Beaumont, a retired police detective; Joanna Brady, an Arizona county sheriff; and Ali Reynolds, a former Los Angeles TV newscaster now living in Arizona. Since both the Brady and Reynolds novels are set in Arizona (where Jance lives; there is much local color), they often overlap. This 2017 thriller is both the latest Ali Reynolds novel, and so modern that it arguably veers into science-fiction.
Ali has married B. Simpson, a young computer expert who has created High Noon Enterprises, a cutting-edge cybersecurity company that guarantees the security of many high-level clients including some in the U.S. government. Simpson is sensitive to self-taught computer-brilliant but socially-inept “geeks”, and he has brought two of them, Stuart Ramey and Camille Lee, into High Noon. Ali helps her husband run the company when he has to travel for business, which he does much of the time.
The novel’s villain is identified at the start: Owen Hansen, a brilliant psychopath who is an even greater computer genius and loner than any of them. His rich father committed suicide, and his socialite mother leaves him to do whatever he wants, which is “playing with computers”. He has invented an Artificial Intelligence assistant that is self-aware. Hansen considers himself a modern god and identifies himself as Odin, and names his A.I. Frigg after Odin’s wife in Norse mythology.
Hansen becomes obsessed with the children of other fathers who have committed suicide, and plots to drive them into suicide also, using Frigg to manipulate whatever computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices they may have. His second victim, Roger McGeary, is the only childhood friend that Stu Ramey ever had. When McGeary’s aunt asks him to investigate, Ali and Cami help the ultra-shy Stu. The closer to Hansen they come, the more the killer switches his and Frigg’s attentions to them. And the more that Frigg, who has become self-aware, decides that Hansen has become a liability to “her” and that “she” needs a new human partner.
“Frigg was a machine, after all. She didn’t feel betrayed by all this because she didn’t feel. Her primary responsibilities consisted of solving problems and calculating risk. At this point Odin was both – a problem and a risk. Frigg immediately began determining the odds of Odin’s ability to pull off this operation – whatever it was – and bring it to a successful conclusion without her assistance. In the process, Frigg came to understand that Odin’s success or failure no longer mattered as far as the AI was concerned. If the mission failed and he was taken into custody, Odin would find a way to terminate her existence. And if he somehow succeeded without her help? He would immediately conclude Frigg was expendable and terminate her anyway. No, if she was going to save herself, she needed to do so immediately.”
Jance has admirably kept her thrillers as up-to-date as possible, both as to police work and computer technology. As with any long-running serial – this is the twelfth Ali Reynolds novel; hardcover $25.99, Kindle $13.99 – there is a good bit of back-story involving reappearing supporting characters and past events. Jance works them smoothly into the narrative. Readers of murder mysteries involving the latest computer developments, and novels with in-depth modern Arizona settings, and of course all J. A. Jance fans, should get “Man Overboard”.
(This review is written from a library copy; not from a publisher-supplied copy.)