Written by PJ Tracy — Back in 2003, the mother-daughter writing team PJ Tracy appeared with Monkeewrench, published as Want to Play? in the UK. This innovative crime thriller introduced the world to Grace MacBride and the computer programming team at the software developer Monkeewrench. It was all about a serial killer who re-enacted fictional crimes these programmers were putting into a game they were releasing. It was gripping, and cleverly done too.
Several other books featuring MacBride and her team have been released since then. In Off the Grid, which will appear as Two Evils in the UK next year, they’ve become educational software designers. But they also work for the FBI on the side. The book opens with two tense scenes. Firstly, two armed assassins board a yacht off Florida and try to murder FBI computer expert John Smith, with whom Grace MacBride is holidaying. She kills both assailants. Secondly, five young Native American girls are kidnapped to be sold into sex slavery in Minnesota. One tries to excape and is murdered.
The plot thickens when Joe Brady, a veteran, terminally ill with cancer, kills two Somali men in a rundown neighbourhood in Minneapolis. Soon after, he attacks and kills two more men at a nearby house and this time is fatally wounded himself.
Everything is somehow linked by the Somalis, and Joe Brady’s targets turn out to be militants. The four remaining Native American girls who were kidnapped are found safe at one of the houses he attacked, and at the other a huge arms pile is discovered. Minneapolis cops Gino and Magozzi, who have worked alongside Grace MacBride since the first Monkeewrench book, work out that a loose network of Islamists are planning a flash mob of bombings around the Midwest on Halloween. John Smith is being hunted by the fundamentalists because he’s been tracking them down online. Thanks to his relationship with Grace MacBride, everyone working at her software house becomes a target too.
Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, although there’s the potential for plenty of intrigue the plotting is fairly predictable and apart from those opening scenes when Grace kills two terrorists on the boat, and when the young girl tries to escape the clutches of the sex traffickers, there’s very little tension in this book at all. None of the story is told from the point of view of the terrorists, and you never find out who they really are, what they’re trying to do, or why. You don’t even meet them face to face in the final showdown. It takes place on a reservation in northern Minnesota, but barely any of the action is described.
The characters fail to engage. There are plenty of them, but this is a short book and the author spends little time on any of them. Unless you’ve met Grace MacBride and Roadrunner, Annie and Harley Davidson in previous books by PJ Tracy, it’s unlikely you’ll find the quick, token impressions of them here very interesting. There’s a Native American chief who, despite the fact that he’s called Chief, seems an interesting fellow and can see spirit animals. However he’s only a side player. The cops Magozzi and Gino are hard to tell apart – one hates flying, and the other one hates raking leaves. Perhaps the trouble is that there just isn’t a main character in this book, and nobody to root for.
Off the Grid feels very loosely put together. This is disappointing as the first book, Monkeewrench, had a good idea behind it and was so tightly wound. The prose tries to be witty but comes off feeling off-hand and glib. The bad guys aren’t dealt with particularly much, but when they are it just seems they’re the clichéed ‘bad Muslims’ of the populist US media. Often things don’t quite add up. At one point Magozzi gets angry with John Smith for endangering the seemingly innocent and harmless Monkeewrench team. A few pages later Harley Davidson takes a huge cache of arms out the back of their Landrover. Seems they’re well prepared for violence.
What’s really been happening, though, is that vets like Joe Brady have been finding and killing terror cells, but the storyline abandons this thread, leaving it dangling in mid-air. If you’re a fan of the series, do read Off the Grid and tell us what you think. We are struggling to find much to recommend this book – it’s OK at best. Monkeewrench/Want to Play? showed what this writing team is really capable of, but they haven’t brought it here.
CFL Rating: 2 Stars
US readers can order the book here.
UK readers can order an import below, or pre-order Two Evils, the UK version of Off the Grid.