The Givenchy Code
One knock against Chick Lit is that the heroines, generally speaking, are not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier. They know their Prada from their Kate Spade, have explored every dead-end job publishing has to offer, and can identify any brand of designer vodka just by sniffing the bottle cap, but MENSA does not have them on speed-dial. Julie Kenner offers a familiar designer-obsessed Manhattanite, but – surprise, surprise! – this one’s elevator runs to the penthouse.
Melanie Prescott is out walking other peoples’ dogs, yet another boring job taken only to fund the newest Jimmy Choo sandals, when she runs into her ex-boyfriend, Todd. He comes on to her again. She demurs. He holds out his peace offering, new Givenchy pumps. She gives in and agrees to drinks and dinner. Then out of the blue, a tall, dark, and dangerous-looking man walks up, like a process server, and hands Mel a coded message. This is even more exciting than a half-price sale of Dolce and Gabbana to Mel, who rather proudly explains that she has a B.S. in math and is working on her M.A. in history. Her main interest is puzzles: cryptography, and especially how it’s been used through history. Todd swipes the message, to make sure she keeps the date, he says laughingly, and promises to let her see it when she arrives at his place.
Mel cracks the code in short order, but the message is rather cryptic: Play or die. She throws it in the trash and goes to bed. She wakes up in the morning to find Todd with half his head blown away, and when she races out into the street in a panic, the man who gave her the message catches her. Todd’s death was a “persuasive measure,” he tells her, and she’d better take the message literally. Mel manages to get away from him, only to run home and find yet another tall handsome man in her apartment. Only this time, he’s on her side.
The premise is an on-line gaming site gone live, and very, very real. The game, called Play.Survive.Win (or PSW), has a target, a protector, and an assassin. The players follow a series of clues through a cyberspace version of Manhattan, each clue leading to the next. If the assassin catches up to the target, and the protector can’t protect her, the assassin eliminates the target and wins; if the target follows the clues correctly and manages to stay ahead of the assassin, she wins. Mel was a big player in the game for a while, but quit because the clues were too easy. Now, it – and her extensive player profile – has come back to haunt her.
Mel’s protector is former Marine Matthew Stryker. His reason for being in the game is rather weak, but he’s determined to protect Mel at all costs. He was tapped as a protector once before, but didn’t take it seriously and his target was killed. He realizes these people mean business, especially the assassin on Mel’s tail, Lynx, but Stryker can’t do it alone. Only Mel can crack the clues and get them to the end alive.
This adventure/thriller rocks. Mel is intelligent, quick-witted, and smart-mouthed. The clues are mostly based on things she revealed in her PSW gamer profile (note to self: never post that much personal info on internet!), so the primary burden of saving her own life rests on her shoulders. Fortunately, she’s also got a good head on those shoulders. Stryker is a pretty typical ex-military hero, good in bed and on Google, and utterly focused on Mel. There are some pretty respectable red herrings tossed out along the way as well, which only improves its thriller rating.
Only one thing about this book bothered me, and it’s something that’s bothered me before in Kenner’s books: she uses the villain’s point of view to tip the story. If Hitchcock had followed Norman Bates into his house early in Psycho and shown viewers the truth about Mrs. Bates, no one would have screamed at the end. If The Sixth Sense had started with a funeral, no one would have gasped at the end. If Kenner had not spread the villain’s planning, thinking, and knowledge in front of me (chapters 14, 31, 47, 63, and 71), I wouldn’t have cursed at the characters (quite as loudly) for making a pretty obvious mistake, and I might have actually screamed at the end.
Otherwise, this is a great adventure read. The action moves at a fast clip, with lots of chick-lit sass, and although none of the clues are that deep, well, the game is a race more than anything. Most clues are very specifically tailored to Mel and her hobbies and history; if you’ve never been to New York City, you’ll be completely in the dark on several riddles. And the geek in me hopes they fixed the error in the catenary curve equation in the final edits (I read an advance reading copy). If you felt The DaVinci Code really needed some Tiffany’s class, or perhaps a little spritz of Very Irresistible Givenchy, definitely check out The Givenchy Code.