In the Blink of an Eye

In the UK, someone is reported missing every 90 seconds.
Just gone. Vanished. In the blink of an eye. 

When does speculative fiction stop being speculative fiction? In the area of AI, it could be a matter of months. So when I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of Jo Callaghan’s debut crime novel In the Blink of an Eye from the folks at Simon & Schuster UK at Harrogate in 2022, I may, from the back cover copy have classified it as spec fic. Now, just a year and a bit on, a lot has changed.

Firstly: the book is no longer the unknown quantity any debut novel (from a non-celebrity) is. It’s done incredibly well in its’ hardcover and paperback editions – receiving rave reviews from the likes of crime fiction stars like Lisa Jewell, MW Craven, Vaseem Khan, Chris Wittaker and other, as well as glowing comments from celebrity guest readers on BBC’s Under the Covers. Not to mention appearing on the Simon & Schuster UK panel at Bay Tales Live 2023 (If you missed that, why not join us at our 2024 show?)

Secondly, if the premise of the book is still ‘near future’, that future is getting nearer every day (Technically, that’s true of any future, but you get what I mean).

So, the plot.

DCS Kat Frank, returning to the police force after personal tragedy, is picked to lead a pilot programme investigating what role AI might have in crime detection. The AI in this case is Lock, an AIDE (Artificially Intelligent Detective Entity) – a programme (and, when needed, holographic projection) able to scan through years of police records in milliseconds, access databases for instant access to profiles, review scenarios and, increasingly, hypothesises. And if these theories are record based to become with, they will, through Lock’s ability to ‘develop’, become increasingly ‘real-world’ acquired. If the trial works.

Lock is being trialled on cold case projects: where interactions with the public and action required should be at a minimum: he (the preferred holographic version taken, but adaptable when the situation requires) might be the ultimate detection resource, but understanding human emotion, empathy and the value of instinct are less easily defined traits to programme in. Cold case projects provide a good test. But when two missing persons cases suddenly become active the pilot project becomes anything but an exercise.

Kat Frank, still reeling from a personal tragedy, thought she was off the force for good. And if she wants back in, then leading the pilot is the only way – even if it’s against the instinct she places so much of her belief in. But to solve the case and save more lives on the line, she’s going to have to find a way to work with her new partner and put aside her own technological prejudices.

So. Where to start with the book? On one hand, it’s an incredibly original take: Callaghan’s own professional life gives her an insight into the world of AI and she does a fine job of avoiding the tech-speak while still displaying an underlying expertise of the subject matter. Often when I read debut novels, the author’s research comes through to the detriment of the story. Yes, you may have had access to an ex-police specialist, but you don’t have to put everything they told you on the page. Here, the author manages a very tricky balancing act of using a technology background that you don’t need to have a great interest in, or knowledge of, to follow. At the same time, it avoids the ‘tech magic’ anyone who’s watched a Hollywood movie involving a hacker will be all too familiar with. But tech isn’t the only subject here, and not the only one that has to balanced with an assured hand that could be too much to ask of a debut author (Or, debut adult/ crime author, at least: the author has written YA before). As previously stated, the protagonist of the piece, Kat Frank, is returning to work after the death of her husband from cancer. As the case progresses, she starts to realise there may be a link between them around the disease. It’s a hook that could be distasteful or as poorly handled in its own way as that Hollywood hacking comparison earlier. It’s not betraying any of the author’s trust (she’s been very open about it in interview), that she and her family have suffered from personal loss in this area – and from that the description and treatment of scenarios is handled sensitively and, sadly, with first hand accuracy.

If that sounds a particularly grim backstory for your escapist fiction, I would stress strongly that you shouldn’t let it put you off: as the author herself has said, writing the book was a cathartic experience for her, and that’s the way it comes across. This is a novel that blends real world issues in science and technology, but never at the expense of being a rollicking good story. Even if you took away the AI elements this is a cleverly constructed, highly assured detective story, with twists, turns and a good dose of humour in among the darker moments.

So that other hand. I took a look at some reviews before writing this. The range of recognition points were across the spectrum. It is, to some degree, a mismatched crime fighting duo we’ve seen ranging anywhere from I, Robot, Alien Nation, Robocop or even, as one reviewer said, Knight Rider.…and as the author herself references, the learning requirements of Terminator 2. I even got Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) vibes at certain moment. All of which is to say, I had slight reservations going into the novel that it would be a rehash of ‘seen-too-many-times’ “What is Sad/ Love/ Tears?” type scenarios. I was happy to find this wasn’t the case. Yes, there are failures to understand subtlety of human reactions/ emotions at times – but it would be strange if there wasn’t. There is an underlying theme of what it means to be human: for better, for worse, for all our strengths and weaknesses. And it’s all handled very, very well.

But underneath it all – the expertise behind the AI, the very real feeling of loss and surviving, the very real world (and I loved the fact it was based in Warwickshire rather than the same places we’ve read a hundred times before), and the dialogue that sounds real, not technobabble, underneath all that, is a sharp, cleverly constructed and very satisfying crime story.

In the Blink of an Eye is available now in Hardback, Paperback, Kindle and Audio

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