Hacked off

Dan Malakin’s new thriller The Box delves into the murkier reaches of our old friend, the internet. Kate Griffin talked tech to him

Thursday, 23rd June — By Kate Griffin

The Box

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

LAWYER Edgar Truman’s life is that of a fairly typical middle-aged dad. His waist is expanding at roughly the same rate his hairline is receding; after work he drinks a bit too much in front of the TV; he has connection issues with his two teenage children, and – although he’s supportive – he doesn’t really get his wife’s burgeoning independence after years when her artistic talent played second fiddle to being a mum.

Describing himself as “a bacon sandwich Jew”, amiable Ed arrives at his north London home one Friday night, expecting the Trumans’ usual non-Orthodox but non-negotiable family gathering. Instead, he finds his house picketed by members of Men Together, an alt-right incel organisation, and his daughter Ally, a teenage activist, unusually absent. It’s the beginning of a hellish weekend. By Sunday a story has appeared online accusing Ed of the sexual harassment of former vulnerable legal aid clients while his DNA links him to the murder of a young woman whose body has been discovered on Hampstead Heath.

Desperate to clear his name and find his daughter, Ed is forced to run from the police and from the sinister attentions of Men Together.

The Box by Dan Malakin throws an ordinary man into the most extraordinary ordeal. Everything Ed thinks he knows about himself and his family is changed in this breathless, pulse-quickening tale of murder, cyber-surveillance and survival. The novel’s central question – how far would you go to save your child? – is answered in a grippingly relentless pursuit from the backstreets of London to the badlands beyond Potters Bar where Ed and his only ally Phoenix, his daughter’s teenage friend, seek refuge and answers.

Fortunately, Phoenix is not only resourceful and street-smart, she’s also a gifted hacker with secrets of her own.

 

Dan Malakin

Dan hails from what he wryly describes as the “beautiful village of Holloway, famed for peaceful boulevards such as the Seven Sisters Road, and landmarks like the former women’s prison”.

Twice shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, his debut novel The Regret was a Kindle bestseller. He also works as a data security consultant, teaching corporations how to protect themselves from online attack. Far from being outlandish, many disturbing aspects of The Box are drawn from reality.

“I’ve been working in the field for over 20 years and much of it is great plot fodder – perfect for modern thrillers,” he explains. “I’d say some of the more controversial ideas came from spending too much time deep-diving weird random internet subcultures. Definitely a bad habit if you hope to maintain some semblance of hope for the world. I try to keep the technical talk in the book to a bare minimum – no one wants to read pages about IP port numbers – but yes, everything in there is possible for even someone with basic hacking skills.”

Dan clearly knows his cookies from his breadcrumbs, but perhaps unexpectedly, the keys to The Box are love and acceptance. Essentially, this is a story about family. It’s a clever conceit that such a high-tech thriller has such a human heart.

“That’s an interesting point. I try not to write with any kind of theme in mind,” he adds. “Unless you’re a literary genius you’re sure to end up with something leaden. It’s always interesting when something emerges on its own. I try to find the emotional core in the main character, and go from there. Also, readers fall in love with people not plots. It’s all about trying to forge that emotional connection.”

One of the great joys of The Box is the evolving relationship between Ed and spiky Phoenix. They make an unlikely but appealing pair of outlaws as they gradually discover that they need each other.

“Phoenix is definitely one of my favourite characters in the book,” says Dan. “If I ever find myself on the run from a ruthless shadowy organisation, I want it to be with her!”

He also admits to a soft spot for his villain, the smoothly repulsive Benedict. Part violent psychopath, part matinee idol, Benedict is the suave enforcer of Men Together.

“Oh, I had way too much fun writing him. He’s so awful, but so charming, and so, so horrible. I mean on an existential level: he’d be more than happy to completely destroy the entire world order so he can come out on top. Thankfully, he’s not based on anyone I know, although” … he pauses … “I think maybe his namesake Benedict Cumberbatch could play him.”

No spoilers here but The Box tackles some very current themes. Asked if he was cautious about entering that territory, Dan gives a thoughtful response.

“There are definitely certain aspects of the book that have recently become part of the great culture war sideshow that’s going on in Western society. Four years ago, when I first started writing it, they probably weren’t such front-page news. So yes, I’m very wary now, especially on social media. It’s easy to make yourself a target.”

Speaking of targets, he offers sound advice on the best ways to foil online scammers and hackers: “Practice good password management, keep your anti-virus software up to date, and if you insist on wading through the murkier depths of the web make sure you use a VPN.”

He laughs: “I’m a bit like the doctor who nips out the back of the surgery for a crafty fag. I tell people to use unique passwords and keep their virus software up to date, but I swear our download computer at home is so full of bugs I’m surprised it doesn’t crawl around downstairs at night.”


The Box. By Dan Malakin. Viper, £12.99

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