Review: Level 26: Dark Origins by Anthony E. Zuiker and Duane Swierczynski

Review written by Jess Peacock

Billed as the world’s first digi-novel (it’s not, see the far superior Personal Effects: Dark Art by J.C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman), Level 26: Dark Origins is a horribly flawed attempt at immersing the reader in a world that, ironically, doesn’t always involve reading. The creative offspring of co-author Zuiker (best known for creating the hit television show CSI), Level 26 provides access to a website where the reader can watch video “cyber-bridges” intended to deepen the novel’s experience. Unfortunately, it is the actual experience of reading the book that proves wanting.

The novel focuses on the hunt for Squweegel, the latex and butter (yes, butter) covered serial murderer who has the distinct honor of being the worlds fist Level 26 killer (based on a ratings system that previously topped out at 25…duh). Always a step ahead of the authorities, it falls on the shoulders of ex-detective Steve Dark, a previous victim of Squweegel’s murderous predilections, to slay the monster once and for all. While it would be nice to gush over Level 26’s original spin on well-worn serial killer plot devices, unfortunately the story is about as uncomplicated as it sounds.

To be fair, co-author Swierczynski (see my review for his novel Severance Package) does an amazing job of moving a story along that seems doggedly determined to mine every overused uncatchable killer convention ever put to film or print. A preternaturally skilled, resourceful, and devastatingly clever serial killer? Check. An emotionally scarred super detective with a mysterious connection to said killer? Check. Religious imagery elevating the villain to Thomas Harris levels of bombastic flare? Check. And long diatribes about the hunter and the hunted simply being two sides of the same coin? Check. Swierczynski’s brisk pace helps somewhat in obfuscating these glaring stereotypes, however Zuiker seems to have more of a passion for the gimmick of splicing television production with seventh grade level literary plot devices.
According to the website, the “cyber-bridges take the experience to the next level, immersing you in the action and putting you inside the minds of a twisted serial killer and the man sent to take him down.” Regrettably, Zuiker fails to grasp that an imaginative and dense story is what immerses readers generally looking to escape the force-fed nature of the visual medium. I couldn’t shake the paranoid feeling that there was a Pied Piper at work here, leading unsuspecting victims into a world of visual passivity through a well-publicized novel (an inverted Reading Rainbow perhaps?)

Unfortunately, as is the norm these days, Level 26: Dark Origins is only the first in a series that seeks to expand the interactivity by opening future novel plots to reader suggestions. Next up is Dark Prophecy, with the Level 26 website already raving over how well the cyber-bridges are coming together in post-production, with barely any mention of the actual book.

Ah, listen to that piper play…