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The Never Game by Jeffery Deaver

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on May 14, 2019

It isn’t often that thriller writers come up with a fresh premise. I don’t know if The Never Game is based on an original concept, but it’s new to me. A role-playing video game called The Whispering Man requires players to escape their captivity. They are initially given five objects to help them escape; they then search for more objects, trade with other players, or kill other players, depending on their strategy. In the real world, someone is kidnapping people, apparently at random, and supplying them with five objects. The involuntary players either escape and survive or not. The victims are left in places that correspond to different levels of the game. As improbable criminal schemes go, this one is fresher and more entertaining than most. The idea of forcing someone to play a game isn’t new, but forcing people into the real-world version of a video role-playing game is something I haven’t seen before.

The protagonist of this new series, Colter Shaw, travels around in his RV collecting rewards. The Never Game begins with a confrontation between Shaw and a fellow with a Molotov cocktail, but soon shifts to Shaw’s agreement to find information leading to the location of a missing girl named Phoebe, for which her father will pay $10,000. She was last seen riding her bicycle in Santa Clara County, California, where Shaw begins his hunt.

Phoebe’s kidnapping is eventually followed by another, leading Shaw (with the assistance of people who know more than he does about video games) to conclude that the kidnapper is following the progression of The Whispering Man. Shaw spends some of his time learning (and thus educating the reader) about the world of gaming and different perspectives on the players who inhabit it. One of his teachers is an attractive young woman named Maddie, adding a bit of sexual tension (or just sex) to the plot.

Shaw is the kind of restless loner who is familiar to thriller fans. He grew up on a large compound adjacent to forested public lands. Only the strangest of people live in compounds, but Shaw is only moderately damaged by his childhood. His father taught him many rules, all of which begin with “Never.” Shaw also learned how to track, a skill that led to his current occupation as a finder. Shaw’s backstory is developed intermittently as the novel progresses. Suffice it to say that he learned how to handle himself in the wilderness, armed or unarmed, and that he is still unraveling a mystery concerning his father. Shaw doesn’t pretend to be a skilled fighter, which makes him a refreshing thriller protagonist.

A clever and timely twist at the end has Shaw and the reader rethinking the killer’s motivation. I’m not always a fan of Deaver’s novels — I like his Lincoln Rhyme books more than the Kathryn Dance series — but he pushes all the right buttons in The Never Game. The story is smart, it moves quickly without devolving into mindless action, and the protagonist has a bit of depth.

Shaw’s backstory gives him reason to investigate a formative incident from his past, while various encounters during the novel set up a mystery that could unfold over the course of several books. The concept of collecting rewards for finding missing persons gives Deaver room to take this series in any number of directions, and the last chapter sets up alternative scenarios for Shaw’s next mission. If The Never Game is any indication, crime novel fans who like to follow a protagonist throgh a series of books should consider adding Shaw novels to their book-buying lists.


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