The Hanged Man's Song by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Remember the good old days when media revelations about illegal or unethical behavior by politicians would cause a scandal that could remove them from office? Me neither at this point, but that’s when this book is set. Way back during the mid-00s when the internet was still growing, but social media hadn’t yet turned the world into a screaming hellscape devoid of decency and hope. (Sorry. It’s been a long couple of years.)
Anyhow…. Professional artist/hacker/saboteur Kidd has gone mostly legit with his paintings selling well, and he is even doing a favor for a politician that involves playing slot machines as part of a statistical investigation into potential casino skimming. His occasional snuggle bunny, the professional thief LuEllen, is helping out with this when they get word that Kidd’s infamous hacker buddy Bobby has gone offline in such a way that it’s raised an alarm, and Kidd is geographically close enough to help check on him.
What Kidd finds is Bobby murdered, and his laptop filled with hacked data is missing. Then someone claiming to be Bobby starts feeding bombshells to the media about government secrets as well as political corruption. With scandal after scandal setting cable news ablaze, Kidd and his friends are sweating what information about them might be in Bobby’s files and who has them. They have to perform a delicate balancing act of trying to get Bobby’s murder investigated without tipping off the feds to his true identity as a wanted hacker until they can get the laptop and make sure they won’t get burned in the process.
Like the other Kidd & LuEllen novels this one involves a lot of hacking, breaking & entering, a fair amount of detective work, and some fairly devious scheming. All four of the novels are at a comparable level of enjoyment and quality, and the only real knock I can put on this one is that it’s just a little too close to the previous book in which Kidd also got pulled into a bad situation when a hacker friend gets killed.
It’s interesting to note that while the series ran from the late-80s until 2003 and always had a lot about computer tech that they never feel horribly dated in the way that many of ‘90s net-crazy books did. The hacking is also portrayed with a sense of practical authenticity that feels believable, unlike the near magic that computer hacking is regularly shown to be like in most fiction anymore.
However, this last one feels the most dated in some ways. Like there’s a scene in which Kidd cobbles together a WiFi antenna from parts bought a Radio Shack, and then explains what WiFi is and how it’s becoming very popular. (Although he also wryly notes that it might be obsolete tomorrow.) That all seems very quaint now, but maybe the thing that seems really old fashioned is the idea that a political scandal revealed in the media might actually get that person removed from office at the very least. Since a lot of the plot hinges on that concept it seems hilariously out of touch these days.
Still, those are minor gripes, and as always Sandford is a master of plotting to build tension and momentum. Like a good heist movie there is a lot of planning and cleverness to the things that Kidd and Lu-Ellen need to pull off, and that’s probably the aspect I enjoy most. This also has one of my favorite sequences in the series when LuEllen gets into trouble, and Kidd quickly goes to extreme lengths in an effort to pull her out of the soup. The growing closeness of the relationship between two professional criminals who are so paranoid that Kidd doesn’t even know her real name is another interesting aspect of the series.
Like a lot of fans, I wish that Sandford had done more of these. Unfortunately, the FAQ on his official website states that he probably won’t simply because they don’t sell well enough compared to his other series although he doesn’t completely rule it out. And we do get to see more of Kidd & LuEllen now and then in the Prey novels, including a big subplot in Silken Prey that seems almost like a final curtain call for them. Still, with the way this one wraps up it seems like a shame we never got more because it opened the door to a lot of interesting possibilities.
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