Review: Peter May creatively connects murders in real world with "murders" in the virtual world in Virtually Dead, a stand-alone thriller.
Michael Kapinsky has taken a leave of absence from his job as a crime scene photographer to deal with the death of his wife from cancer, though he agrees to fill in on an as-needed basis. He's not only troubled by losing his wife, but also losing their multi-million dollar home in Newport Beach. He's behind on the payments, the bank is on the verge of foreclosing, and to make matters even worse, his wife's family is suing him for the reminder — what little is left — of his assets. Not able to continue paying his therapist, she suggests he join her online in a virtual world called Second Life, where he can discuss his feelings in a group session without fear of revealing his identity. Skeptical of the idea, he joins Second Life using an avatar named Chas Chesnokov, and is quickly drawn into an environment that offers excitement and intrigue but also anonymity. It helps that one of his co-workers in real life also has an avatar in Second Life, a private investigator named Twist O'Lemon, who is able to get him started. It isn't long before a real mystery presents itself to them: two murders in real life that their department is investigating have connections to two "murders" in Second Life; both victims had avatars, all information of which have been erased, leaving behind only the bloody images of their former selves. As incredible as it may seem, Michael starts to believe that the "murders" in Second Life are somehow linked to the murders in real life.
Second Life is a "real" destination online, and the author renders the environment in striking detail in Virtually Dead. But probably more telling is how "real" the virtual character of Chas becomes, and his connection to the reader. A passage from about a third of the way through the book illustrates this from Michael's perspective:
Michael sat staring at Chas on the screen. And made the slow transition from night-time Second Life to the morning sun of real life streaming through his office window. He looked at the clock on the wall. He had spent nearly three hours in this other world where he had become someone else. For the first time in months, the pain of losing [his wife] Mora had not been the foremost thing on his mind. What surprised and disturbed him most, however, was how Chas had in some way taken over, like some hidden part of himself that he barely knew existed. He was not Chas, and Chas was not him. But they shared feelings, and memories, and pain. They were one, and at the same time, two. It had been an extraordinary, whirlwind experience, and it was a little scary.
Clearly part of, and maybe much of, the appeal of Virtually Dead is trying to figure out how the Second Life and real life murders are linked. Somewhat surprisingly, it's not the virtual mystery that's the weaker aspect here, but the one set in reality. Maybe it's easier to be flexible with actions and consequences in Second Life, but in real life some of the things Michael does are simply not credible. It might have been better to downplay Michael's activities in real life, focusing more on what is clearly the stronger element of the book, his time as Chas in Second Life.
Still, it's an interesting premise for a murder mystery and even those readers unfamiliar with Second Life (or any other kind of virtual reality) will likely find Virtually Dead to be quite enjoyable.
Acknowledgment: Poisoned Pen Press provided an ARC of Virtually Dead for this review.
Review Copyright © 2010 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author …
Poisoned Pen Press (Hardcover), October 2009
ISBN-13: 9781590586082; ISBN-10: 1590586085
Poisoned Pen Press (Hardcover), February 2010
ISBN-13: 9781590586044; ISBN-10: 1590586042
Location(s) referenced in Virtually Dead: California
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Virtually Dead by Peter May
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: January 2010
List Price: $24.95