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The novel goes digital: thrillers lure readers to dark online territory

Level 26 Anthony ZuikerNot everyone likes to read. I know that may come as a shock to anyone who voluntarily clicked on a column about books, but the truth is that television and the internet are winning the battle for short attention spans everywhere. I tend to applaud any form of writing that attracts readers who would otherwise be tuned into The Young and the Restless, whether it’s a romance novel, the Twilight series, or the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Recently, a new trend has emerged in the publishing world that combines our ever-increasing obsession with the internet and prime-time televisions shows about teams of quirky detectives in various glamorous locations. Called a “digi-novel” or a multimedia novel, these new books rely on the internet savvy of the audience as much as they rely on their reading skills.

Level 26 by Anthony Zuiker cover imagePerhaps because the thought of expanding the Crime Scene Investigation franchise to CSI: Tulsa seemed to be taking the spinoffs too far, the shows’ creator and executive producer recently turned to writing. Anthony E. Zuiker’s Level 26: Dark Origins, tells the story of a serial killer with a penchant for mutilation whose actions are so disturbing, he can’t be ranked among the 25 levels used by law-enforcement officials to classify murderers. It’s not the story that’s turning heads, but the method Zuiker uses to unravel his mystery, which he calls “storytelling 2.0.” When readers purchase the novel, they receive a set of codes that allows them to log on to a website and view high-quality short films featuring actors portraying the characters in the book. The films not only add an extra means of engaging the reader, they also reveal clues that are missing from the novel. The website also features a forum for fans to connect with each other and share theories, and a program that allows readers to enter their own phone number in the hopes of receiving a call from the killer himself.

Personal Effects: Dark Art by J.C. Hutchins cover imageJ.C. Hutchins follows a similar format for his new novel, Personal Effects: Dark Art. The story is told through the notes of a therapist attempting to evaluate an accused serial killer who claims he isn’t responsible for the murders. Hutchins takes the concept of multimedia storytelling one step farther than Zuiker by creating a realistic online world that corresponds to the facts presented in the novel. The fictional characters and institutions of the novel can be Googled to reveal websites that contain extra clues. The phone numbers that appear in the book can be called to access a character’s voicemail, which could also provide clues. ID cards and photos that come with the novel, and even information on the inside covers of the book offer opportunities for the reader to become a detective and solve the mystery before the Hutchins reveals the answers.

Book-lovers tend to be wary of those who would mess with their beloved novels. Amazon’s Kindle is still receiving tepid reviews, and Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels amounted to nothing more than nostalgia-inducing kitsch. These new digi-novels will undoubtedly be criticized for introducing a new level of violence and gore to the mystery/thriller genre, and for the way they remove the reader’s responsibility to imagine characters and settings. However, the internet poses very little threat to the survival of traditional literature as we know it, and the introduction of more interactive formats could be just the ticket for technophiles who shy away from the decidedly unchanging nature of the printed word.