Devil's Plaything: A Mystery for Idle Minds
by Matt Richtel
Review by Verna Suit
Poisoned Pen Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781590588871
Date: 03 May 2011 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Octogenarian Lane Idle has suffered a rapid escalation of dementia in the last six months. This disturbs her grandson Nathaniel, a former medical student and now medical blogger, because he doesn’t think the disease should progress that fast. More important, he doesn’t want to lose his grandmother. Nat is on his guard after someone takes pot shots at the two of them in the park, a shady-looking “military venture capitalist” starts hanging around, and Lane makes rambling comments about having a wartime secret. He concludes there’s a conspiracy either to find out Lane’s secret or to keep her quiet. To protect his grandma, he kidnaps her from her retirement home and the two of them go on the lam.
What Nat doesn’t know and readers do is that Lane has been telling her memories to a computer. Transcripts of the interactive sessions are interspersed throughout the story and it becomes clear that the computer program has its own agenda. (Readers may start feeling paranoid at this point as they reflect on how dependent they are becoming on computers in every aspect of their lives.)
A main character with dementia is somewhat unique in mystery fiction and the author handles her with sensitivity. Commitment-phobic Nat is flawed and likeable. An amusing thread is his habit of drawing on his medical education to idly diagnose strangers’ underlying diseases from their tics and limps.
Author Matt Richtel is a journalist who writes about technology and won a Pulitzer for his series on distracted driving. In this book, his subject is the interaction between computers and the working of the mind. His frightening premise is that frequent computer use degrades human memory. Devil’s Plaything, third in the Nat Idle series, is an absorbing, thought-provoking, often very funny thriller. It makes one want to check out the first two.