Online Dating Can Kill You. Literally.
By Jane Pek
Whether the digital takeover of our lives is a blessing or a fatal curse might be up for debate, but it is definitely a boon to crime writers. In “The Verifiers,” Jane Pek’s debut, the world of social media, big tech and internet connectivity provides fertile new ground for humans to deceive, defraud and possibly murder one another.
Claudia Lin, the narrator and protagonist, is young, Asian, bookish, queer, a Queens native and a bit of a slacker. After she dips out of the fast-track finance job her successful brother arranges, Claudia signs on to play sort-of detective at a shady start-up called Veracity, which verifies the identities and stories of users on dating apps. The job essentially involves cyberstalking people online and regular-stalking them the rest of the time. Claudia is ill suited to her new position: She’s a bit of a Luddite, has never used a dating site herself or even had much to do with the digital world. Her main qualification is her devotion to detective fiction. This lifelong preparation leads to both revelation and disaster when Iris Lettriste, a mysterious client, hires Veracity to investigate two suitors, one of whom she’s never actually met. Veracity’s bread-and-butter is outing liars — cheating spouses, fabulists falsifying their jobs or ages, game players juggling apps and profiles. But Claudia senses something else is going on with Iris, and when she goes missing from both the real and digital worlds, ditching Veracity (and her bill) and deleting all her profiles, it draws Claudia into an adventure worthy of her fictional hero, Inspector Yuan. Was Iris a suicide? Or was she murdered? Was she even Iris at all — or her own sister? Was she a depressed, penniless and heartbroken journalism school dropout, or a daring investigative reporter about to blow the lid off the dating industry?
Those portions of the novel devoted to Claudia’s personal life are well rendered and charming but not especially fresh. Her hypercritical immigrant mother, superambitious or stunnings iblings, lovable loser/wannabe artist friends and nerdy, clever partymates and hookups are likable and all too relatable — but not exactly bigger than life. The book jolts into a higher, wilder gear when the stranger, less predictable and possibly malevolent figures arrive, especially the glamorous Becks Rittel, the “Blonde Assassin,” who has a gift for uttering deadpan, socially unacceptable comments, and who shares an erotic charge with Claudia that the reader can’t miss even if Claudia herself seems oblivious. Also compelling is Claudia’s inscrutable boss, Komla Atsina, a smooth-talking Ghanaian tech wizard whose suave, elegant, utterly controlled demeanor makes him equally believable as undercover hero or evil mastermind.
“The Verifiers” provides the noir tropes Claudia loves (enigmatic client, amateur detective, lots of red herrings) but with a decidedly 21st-century twist. And the central mystery is, to this reader at least, original and intriguing. The question of whether the people we encounter online are who they say they are is a genuinely troubling one. Are they cheaters, frauds, psychos — or something even weirder and scarier? What if they are not people at all, but bots, or as Pek dubs them, “synths,” created to deceive and control us? Are we surrendering to algorithms that know us better than we know ourselves? Are we trading our freedom of choice, thought, even desire, for convenience and fantasy? Are we becoming unable to tell, or even care, what’s real? Exploring these issues, “The Verifiers” leads us deeper and deeper into a maze with no clear exit. Except of course to delete our apps and stop searching for truth and happiness online. But we won’t ever do that. Will we?