Cover of Players

Paul J. McAuley
390 pages
published in 2007

Paul J. McAuley used to be one of my favourite science fiction writers. Used to be, because unfortunately he seems to have chucked it in favour of writing crime and thriller novels. Probably for some silly reason as that they sell better. Not that I mind writers trying out other genres, but whereas I devoured McAuley's science fiction novels, I couldn't finish Mind's Eye, the first of his thrillers I try, stopping halfway through and returned it to the library after it had been lying on my shelves accusively for a few weeks. It's therefore with some trepidation that I approached Players, but I wanted to give him another chance. And it worked, in as far as that I finished this one.

What's interesting is that Players shares its opening gimmick, a crime in an online game having repercussions in the real world, with Charlie Stross' very different Halting State, which was also published this year. But whereas Charlie's novel is set some years in the future and is quite clearly science fiction, Players is set in the here and now and quite clearly is not.

It is in fact a serial killer crime novel. Not my kind of thing normally, but McAuley made it work for me. The serial killer is Dirk Merrit, who became very wealthy from creating a post-apocalyptic massive multiplayer roleplaying game called Trans. Merrit lost most of his money almost as quickly through such stunts as using plastic surgery to remodel himself into one of the villainous Overlords from his game, and building a house that looks like an Overlord castle. He already lost control of his game, but has gotten his revenge by scamming the current owners of it out of subscription money, which also, coupled with some light credit card fraud, pays for his bills and his hobby: hunting for the deadliest game.

And it's when one of his prey almost escapes and is found naked in the woods in Oregon near his home that the story begins. As the victim turns out to be Edie Collier, a girl newly promoted Portland detective Summer Ziegler once arrested, she is asked to take Edie's stepfather to the small town's mortuary where she's kept for identification. Summer gets involved with the local police's investigation, because she can't let go of the girl's death. Together with local detective Denise Childers, who has suspected Merrit from the start, she starts to do some unsanctioned snooping, even when the case seems closed when acting on an anonymous tipoff the police raid the hovel of a wellknown local troublemaker, find Edie's clothes there, arrest him and he hangs himself in his cell...

Meanwhile, in the second thread of the story, there's Carl, Merrit's driver who helps him play his little games. Carl's a psychopath who knows Merrit is heading to his downfall, getting sloppier over time as well as almost bankrupt. Carl therefore is preparing to rip Merrit off, kill him, then disappear. But first he needs to know how Merrit works his scams...

It's all worked out competently and entertainingly, but fell a bit flat; for me Players lacked passion and conviction. The plot meandered to its inevitable conclusion, various people were killed along the way and there was nothing there that you couldn't have gotten from a dozen other serial killer writers. And McAuley is too good to be just another one of them.

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Webpage created 25-11-2007, last updated 25-11-2007.