Criminologist Lincoln Rhyme hunts down a killer who seems to have unlimited access to his victim's information. Lincoln Rhyme is a former NYPD detective who now works as a forensic criminologist, following an accident that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.
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His cousin Arthur Rhyme is accused of a brutal murder and Arthur's wife Judy contacts Lincoln for help, convinced her husband is innocent. Lincoln and Arthur were very close growing up but had a falling out as young men and have barely spoken in a decade.
Lincoln and his girlfriend, NYPD Detective Amelia Sachs, soon discover that the evidence in the case is suspiciously clean and decide he was probably framed. They suspect that the killer was the anonymous tipster who called the police to report the murder.
Meanwhile Rhyme is also consulting with UK police on a case involving a professional hitman sent after a target, but he decides he can't divide his attention between the two cases and shifts his focus solely to the local killings.
The killer is dubbed '522' by the detectives investigating him for the date the investigation started, May 22. He strikes again, but luckily when the anonymous tipster phone call comes in one of the officers on the case hears about it right away. They are able to deduce who the most likely frame-up victim will be and they arrive at his house first.
They wait and spot the real killer on his way to plant evidence, but he senses the trap and flees before they can get a good look. They recover a bag of evidence he had brought to plant, which he tossed into a trash can during his escape.
Attached accidentally to the bag is a post-it note with a name, ‘Robert Jorgensen' and an address. Amelia visits and finds Jorgensen to be a deeply paranoid man. He claims that his life has been destroyed by an identity thief who has been systematically persecuting him for years, creating false debts, criminal convictions, etc, under his name. He hands her a book, saying the persecution started when he bought it and he's sure there's a bug in it but can't find it.
The book turns out to contain an RFID tag. They figure out that 522 is somehow monitoring the purchasing habits of his victims. They contact an online shoe company they think the killer used, and the company reveals they use a data mining company called Strategic Systems Datacorp, which is based in NY. Rhymes realizes that this must be the source of all the necessary data.
Amelia and some other detectives visit SSD and talk to the CEO, who is horrified at the idea of a breach. They interview all employees with the necessary level of access, with inconclusive results, and request a list of all customers who might have had similar data access. Not entirely trusting the company Sachs and Rhymes decide to cover their bets by getting a second opinion from an ex-employee of the company.
Rhymes continues separating the false "planted" evidence from the real evidence inadvertently left by the killer, most of the latter vague or microscopic. While checking the most recent murder weapon Lincoln Rhyme notices a small spot that turns out to be hot sauce.
Arthur Rhymes meanwhile is having a bad time in jail and concerned about his safety. He is unaware at first that Lincoln is on the case, although his wife eventually tells him.
The ex-SSD employee is now an activist with Privacy Now. He tells Sachs about SSD's unsavory history including an incident a few years ago when a data scrounger named Peter Gordon came into conflict with the SSD and died under suspicious circumstances shortly thereafter.
Rhyme sends in a rookie called Ron Pulanski to SSD to pick up the list they were promised, which is on a disk. While there he has Pulaski ask permission to run through the disk on his laptop before leaving, in case he has questions. But secretly Pulaski calls into the NYPD and their information specialists guide him through hacking into the SSD system.
Arthur Rhymes is attacked prison and ends up in the infirmary.
One of the janitors at SSD has been experiencing weird data anomalies himself, he leaves work and visits the cemetery where his wife and child are buried. He is followed by the killer, who has been setting him up as a fall guy and now plans to kill him and leave a false suicide note/confession. Unfortunately the cemetery groundskeeper notices the killer and is suspicious, the killer stabs him and escapes.
Lincoln decides to set a trap and during the press conference about the groundskeeper murder they plant an undercover officer pretending to me an expert information systems consultant. However the killer catches on and sends a bounty hunter after him as a distraction while he hits the NYPD closer to home.
The killer kidnaps and tortures a police captain, getting personal information on all of the investigators on the case. Sachs finds her car has been repossessed, although her father bought it in cash decades earlier. Later that night the electricity at Lincolns townhouse is disconnected for non-payment. One of the investigating officers is suspended by Internal Affairs after testing positive for heroin, cocaine, and LSD, Pulaski's wife is picked up by immigration services despite being fourth generation American. 522 is fighting back.
Pulaski goes to help his wife and calls Mark Whitcomb, a manager at SSD who he bonded with a bit during the case. Whitcomb meets with him but demands that the NYPD drop their investigation in exchange. Pulaski panics, thinking it is 522 and the two men struggle. However it turns out that Whitcomb works for the DHS in liaison with SSD and they feel any threat to SSD may compromise their access to data.
Sachs follows some clues and stumbles on the killer's home. He is lying in wait and attacks her and ties her up. She recognizes him as one of the security guards from SSD, but also puts to and two together and deduces that he is actually Peter Gordon the data scrounger who supposedly died under suspicious circumstances.
Meanwhile Lincoln has realized that SSD has lied about the data it collects, the files they released are clearly a fraction of the data collected, the real files contain mountains of data on every person, including realtime updates on their whereabouts and purchases any time they pass a CCTV, use a credit card, or move near an RFID chip reader. He is increasingly worried by not being able to contact Amelia.
Gordon is about to kill Amelia when Robert Jorgensen breaks into his house. He's been tailing her since their interview in the hopes that she will lead him to his tormentor. He knocks Gordon out and frees Amelia, but Gordon regains consciousness and shoots him in the back. After a chase Gordon corners Amelia and is about to shoot her when he is shot himself by a police officer sent by Rhymes. Turns out Rhymes found her through a combination of the data mining info plus the deduction that the cayenne pepper on the killer's knife was from pepper spray, making the most likely suspect a security guard at SSD.
After the case is wrapped up there is one last surprise. Privacy Now subpoenas the SSD dossiers Rhyme got during the investigation, hoping to expose how broad the data mining is and the fact that the DHS has access to all that citizen data. But SSD steps in with a subpoena of their own, demanding the return of every piece of data they supplied.
Rhymes cuts a deal with SSD that he will not release the dossiers to Privacy Now or the press as long as they fix all the personal and financial records that Gordon tampered with, including those for Jorgensen, who survived the gunshot and is in the hospital.
Finally we hear the conclusion of the UK case, which failed due to a fake-out by the hitman. The intended target was someone else entirely than they believed, and the killer left a note for Rhyme promising they'll cross paths again.
The book ends with Lincoln seeing his estranged cousin outside his house, obviously hesitating to come in. Lincoln makes a decision, and tells his nurse to let Arthur in.
Best part of story, including ending:
It's an interesting use of identity theft as a tactic for a serial killer, very spooky idea.
Best scene in story:
I really liked when Pulaski goes to SSD, he's a good character, very sweet and insecure, and it is fun seeing him put one over on the rather shady folks there.
Opinion about the main character:
Lincoln Rhyme is very clever and reasonably interesting, but not the most compelling character in the book really. He's a bit humorless and rather mean to his nurse for no apparent reason.