In his new book “Devil’s Plaything,” San Francisco writer Matt Richtel maintains the wild and crazy pace he created in his first novel, “Hooked.”
Again, his protagonist is Nat Idle, a seasoned but ragtag San Francisco journalist who finds himself in the middle of what he believes is a biotech industrial conspiracy — one that is using his old, feisty, dementia-diagnosed grandmother as a human guinea pig.
There’s no lag time or filler in the thriller, which has the investigative reporter — a blogger for a medical website — and his grandma, named Lane, fleeing a series of would-be killers. A spooky man in a hoodie who apparently fires a shot at them when they’re hanging out in Golden Gate Park one day late in October is the first of many adversarial characters Nat and his grandmother come up against.
But Richtel, who’s not only a novelist, but also a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter covering technology in the Bay Area, clearly has more than a cat-and-mouse game in store for readers.
As in his first book and his newspaper work, his story brings larger issues to light — mostly how technology is changing humanity, for better and worse.
Grandma Lane’s involvement comes in the form of her participation in the “human memory crusade,” a program offered by her retirement community Magnolia Manor, that, somewhat creepily, prompts her to type her life’s story into a computer.
Excerpts of her transcriptions, which open the novel and are interspersed throughout, are among the book’s most interesting passages. How those details from her memories are being used by the mysterious originators of the program — and what they do, sometimes violently, to try to stop Nat from learning more about their activities — comprise the book’s ongoing puzzle.
Action rarely lets up in Nat’s attempts to chase them down. He tangles with various unlikely characters, from the manager of the retirement home to an investor in the company Nat works for who has an unexpected, unusual interest in his problems.
While the thrills don’t stop, “Devil’s Plaything” also is notable for its humor and color. Nat is a funny, sympathetic and brainy protagonist who uses a wine opener as a weapon and whose detailed observations about The City (Halloween in San Francisco gets fun commentary) and life’s trials and ironies amuse readers from start to finish.
Note: Richtel will talk about the book at 6:30 p.m. June 9 at Bookshop West Portal, 80 West Portal Ave., San Francisco.
By Matt Richtel
Published by: HarperCollins
Price: $9.99; $8.99 ebook