The first two John Smith novels… which will make you terrified of the internet
John Smith possesses a special gift that seems more like a curse: he can access other people’s thoughts. He hears the songs stuck in their heads, knows their most private traumas and fears, and relives the painful memories they can’t let go of. The CIA honed his skills until he was one of their most powerful operatives, but John fled the Agency and now works as a private consultant, trying to keep the dark potentials of his gift in check — and himself out of trouble.
Unfortunately, John is unexpectedly plunged into dangerous waters when his latest client, billionaire software genius Everett Sloan, hires him to investigate a former employee — a tech whiz kid named Eli Preston — and search his thoughts for some very valuable intellectual property Sloan is convinced he’s stolen. But before John can probe Preston’s mind, his identity is compromised and he’s on the run for his life, along with Sloane’s young associate, Kelsey Foster.
Hunted by shadowy enemies with extensive resources and unknown motives, John and Kelsey must go off the grid. And John knows that using his powers to their fullest potential is their only hope for survival — even if it means putting his own sanity at risk.
In Killfile, we’re introduced to John Smith: the man you call if you need a situation handled quietly, and out of the eyes of the law. He’s also the one you contact if you need to extract information or discover others’ intentions. You see, from the opening pages, we learn that he is pretty unique: he is psychic — actually psychic, not a parlour magician who’s just very good at reading gullible tourists.
Killfile is a briskly-paced novel, and one that will pull the reader through from start to finish. I blitzed through this in just two sittings, and immediately began the sequel. A strong series opener, in a series that looks like it could have strong staying power.
Hired by Everett Sloan to find out if, or how a rival tech billionaire stole some proprietary code, Smith is paired with a highly-efficient employee of Sloan’s. Together they infiltrate a retreat for Preston’s company, and quickly everything goes to hell. Smith and Kelsey become the prey, with Preston intent on keeping them distant and neutralizing the threat that Smith poses to his business. But how do you run from someone who has near limitless control and power over the internet? How does Smith use his gifts — which he has become perhaps too reliant — when he can’t get close to the mark? A mark who also happens to be a tech genius, and can cause damage from a far?
Over the course of the novel, we learn a little bit about Smith’s past, his unhappy childhood, how he came to the attention of the CIA, and the unorthodox training he went through. Farnsworth doesn’t give us too much, clearly keeping some things in reserve for future instalments of the series. Smith is in some ways a typical thriller protagonist — he’s damaged, solitary, not very good at following orders and very quick to go off-book. It’s his special abilities, though, that make this series stand out (as well as the incredible, cinematic pacing). Here’s how he described himself:
“A reader. Someone who can flip through other people’s thoughts like a book. This is why we need you. We can listen in on every phone call made in the United States. We can track money from the Swiss bank accounts of every terrorist organization in the world. Our satellites can look at the exact spot where Osama was hiding two weeks ago. Hell, I can tell you what Saddam Hussein had for breakfast. And it still don’t mean shit. Because all that data is nothing without context. Without human emotion or motives or thought, all you have is facts. We don’t need to know what people are doing anymore. We have machines for that. We need to know what they’re thinking. That’s where you come in.”
Farnsworth does a very good job of giving Smith limitations — he experiences what he ‘reads’ in others, and suffers feedback from everything he sends out. So, for example, if he gives an enemy the memory of a broken leg (or worse), he experiences a percentage of that pain as well. Given that this is not a power he can switch off, it means he’s living in a pretty constant state of discomfort, intrusion… a whole tsunami of emotions. It makes for an interesting context in which he’s operating, and Farnsworth is very good at making sure that is never far from his hero’s mind and actions. There was never a moment when I thought that he’d missed something, or forgotten the implications of Smith’s nature and abilities.
The novel also includes plenty of commentary on the evolution of technology — especially the internet and social media. Specifically, the author lays bare the perilous position in which our reliance on the internet puts us. It’s quite terrifying.
Which brings me to nicely Flashmob, published in the UK by Hunt You Down. In this second novel, Farnsworth shows us even more of the internet/social media dark side. Here’s the synopsis:
Gifted troubleshooter John Smith must take down a shadowy figure who has weaponized the internet, using social media to put a price on the heads of his targets.
As a fixer for America’s one percent, John Smith cleans up the messes of those rich enough to afford him. But he’s no ordinary gun for hire. Smith is a man of rare gifts, including the ability to read minds. Arriving at the wedding of Kira Sadeghi, a reality television celebrity he recently saved from kidnappers, Smith witnesses a group of gunmen open fire, hitting the bride and others. Though he’s unarmed, Smith cripples one of the killers and is able to pry one word from his mind: “Downvote.”
Eager to learn more, Smith hacks into the brain of an FBI agent investigating the attack to discover the Bureau has been investigating a nefarious new threat called “Downvote,” an encrypted site on the “dark net” that lists the names of celebrities and offers a hefty bounty for anyone who can kill them — unleashing an anonymous and deadly flashmob with a keystroke.
Finding a mastermind on the internet is like trying to catch air — unless you’re John Smith. Motivated by money and revenge, he traces a series of electronic signatures to a reclusive billionaire living at sea, accompanied by a scary-smart female bodyguard who becomes Smith’s partner in his quest. The hunt for their prey will lead from Hong Kong to Reykjavik to a luxury gambling resort deep in the Laotian jungle. Yet always this criminal mastermind remains one step ahead.
The only way Downvote’s creator can stop Smith is to kill him… because while this diabolical genius can run, there’s no hiding from a man who can read minds.
Flashmob picks up John Smith’s story a few months after the events of Killfile, and is an equally fast-paced thriller. Where the first novel in the series was more about the perils of lives controlled by technology and the internet, this novel is about the wider impact and potential of social media. Specifically, the way it can shape our moods, impulses and beliefs. Following the 2016 election, and the revelations about Facebook and Twitter, and the insidious ways in which social media platforms can be deployed, this novel was felt very timely and relevant.
The novel features all of the strengths of the first — it’s pacing, clean prose, interesting and unique protagonist. We also get more information about Smith’s background, his relationship with his former handlers. Where Killfile was all set in the US, Flashmob takes Smith’s work overseas, travelling to Iceland, Romania, and Asia. It reminded me, obliquely, of Roger Hobbs’s Ghostman series in some ways (only, Farnsworth’s is better).
We also learn a little bit more about other countries’ experiments with empaths and other gifted individuals. Really, though, this novel seems intent on making readers concerned about our social media obsessions, addictions, and dependencies. Sure, certain elements of the novel are exaggerations of what we see frequently mentioned in the media, but I came away from this novel feeling very uncomfortable about Facebook, Twitter, and other mass-social media platforms. The psychology behind these platforms is still pretty new, and who knows how much of this is true widely or just anecdotally-inspired. But still… Thought-provoking.
“Look at what Facebook did a couple of years ago. They made people feel sad by adding depressing news stories to their news feeds. And they prodded people into voting on election day by including ‘I Voted’ buttons on their pages. And it worked. It’s a technique called massive emotional contagion. It’s possible to spread an emotional state or a mood over social media — just like a computer virus, only it affects the users, not the computers. In other words, Facebook was willfully screwing with the heads of their users — and then they bragged about how it worked. They published papers on it. And that’s just what they admitted to. What happens if a piece of legislation comes up in Congress that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t like? Or if there’s a presidential candidate he wants to see in the White House? What does Facebook start pushing to its users then?”
Overall, I really enjoyed both of these novels. I read them back-to-back, pulled through from the beginning. John Smith is an interesting and engaging protagonist. His abilities offer the series plenty of opportunity to sit apart from typical (techno-)thrillers. I certainly hope there are more novels in the offing. There’s plenty of detail, but Farnsworth never lets the story drop from the fore — everything informs either the characters’ development or the plot, and it never felt like the author was indulging in info-dumping or anything like that.
If you’re a fan of thrillers, and are looking for something a little different, then I highly recommend this series.