Devil’s Plaything

by Matt Richtel

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Year published: 2011
Category: science thriller; mystery; medical thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY (from amazon):

We all keep secrets, but what if someone wasn’t just stealing our secrets but changing them . . . and our brains?

Journalist Nat Idle is nearly gunned down in Golden Gate Park. He quickly learns it was no random attack. Suddenly, in pursuit of the truth, he’s running for his life through the shadows of Silicon Valley, a human lab animal caught in a deadly maze of neurotechnology and institutional paranoia. And his survival rests entirely in the hands of his eighty-five-year-old grandmother, Lane, who’s suffering from dementia and can’t remember the secret at the heart of the world-changing conspiracy.


Written by a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Devil’s Plaything: A Mystery for Idle Minds is a terrific new novel (May 2011) that successfully defies many conventions of the thriller genre, making it feel fresh and original. It’s part science thriller, part mystery, part literary fiction about memory and the value of living in the present moment. Richtel’s big hook is the pair of protagonists he created: Nat Idle, an ex-medical student now commitment-wary, digitally-overconnected blogger/journalist, teamed with his beloved grandmother, who suffers from dementia and for most of the book has only a tenuous grip on reality. (Makes for some real challenges writing dialogue, but opens a variety of possibilities for the writer to drop clues which may or may not be “true”. Richtel pulls it off.) At the core of the mystery is a secret hidden somewhere in Grandma’s very unreliable memory, and Nat must find it. The dynamic between these two characters, combined with superior writing, really makes this book.

The setting is also integral to the way Richtel tells his story. Everything happens in the San Francisco Bay area. The unique flavor of the city’s neighborhoods, residents, and culture provide a convincing and engaging backdrop.

Devil’s Plaything is not a shoot ’em up, super-hero kind of thriller, but more of an intelligent, thoughtful, and yes, action-filled story with intriguing biomedical and ethical themes. It doesn’t have any gigantic plot twists, but it is also not predictable and never formulaic. The book is more mystery (protagonist must figure out what happened) than thriller (protagonist must stop something from happening); in fact the “ticking bomb” is introduced rather late in the story and isn’t very convincing, nor does it feel truly necessary.

I give 4 biohazard symbols instead of 5 only because the biomedical content lies lightly in the story. It’s important to the plot, but does not dominate the reader’s attention. This is a story about people, not technology. Richter touches on some fascinating “neuro-tech” and much of what he says is absolutely factual (in fact, related to the story he wrote which won the Pulitzer).  Medical people should ignore the absurd (but fortunately, passing) reference to antibiotics at the end of the story. The whole plot line about breaking the binary code definitely requires significant suspension of disbelief; like many such things in thrillers, the reader just has to go with it and not ponder too deeply.

Richtel writes really well.  Some of my favorite quotes from this book:

“He starts his engine.  He pulls a tight U-turn, and heads off in pursuit of a killer in a gas guzzler.  One day I’m nearly shot by a hybrid driver, then by a driver of a Humvee.  On my side, I think, G.I. Chuck in his sports car.  I’m in the middle of a battle involving the entire automobile food chain.”

“Out walks a Napoleon complex: ninety-eight pounds of hair and bar fight.”

“Their parents experimented with drugs and sex, but the hipsters are playing out their discontent by inventing new combinations of omelet ingredients using farm fresh produce and biotechnology.”

Keywords and themes: neurotech; Sea Cliff; multitasking; cortisol; binary code; brainwashing; distracted driving; texting; PTSD; reprogramming; hacking; Alzheimer’s

Do not read this book if: you’re addicted to the “Brain Age” video games

FCC disclaimer: A free e-copy of this book was given to me by the publisher for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.