'Level 26: Dark Origins'

By Rachel Trongo
Posted at September 8, 2009 - 10:55 AM GMT

Title: Level 26: Dark Origins
Author: Anthony E Zuiker with Duane Swierczynski
Release Date: September 8, 2009
Publisher: Dutton
ISBN: 978-0-525-95125-4
Price: $26.95

CSI creator Anthony Zuiker combines a thrilling, fast-paced narrative with a new spin on storytelling in his debut Digi-Novel. Written with Duane Swierczynski, Level 26: Dark Origins tells the story of a group of investigators with the Special Circumstances (Special Circs) division of the federal government as they track down the highest ranking serial killers. There are 25 levels used to categorize serial killers, but Special Circs is working to find the only man ever placed in a category of his own: Level 26. The man is called Sqweegel, and he is known to have killed more than 50 people over the span of 20 years. He rapes, tortures, mutilates, shoots, burns and poisons his victims. He is literally able to get away with murder because there is no forensic evidence to tie him to his crimes. He wears a full body suit so that he doesn't leave so much as a skin cell behind at a crime scene. The only man who has ever come close to catching Sqweegel is Steve Dark (Daniel Buran), but Dark left Special Circs behind for good after Sqweegel killed his entire foster family.

Dark is a compelling character, consumed by darkness and driven to the brink. After his family was killed, Dark headed down a morally grey path in an attempt to hunt Sqweegel down. Ultimately, he failed. When the story begins, Dark is still struggling to maintain the normalcy he was able to regain after he met his wife Sibby (Tauvia Dawn). Meeting Sibby changed his life. Sibby, and the baby they're expecting together, is Dark's reason for living, and it's the reason he wants nothing to do with Special Circs or the hunt for Sqweegel. Unfortunately for Dark, staying away isn't an option. Sqweegel is a looming presence in his past, and the past has a way of catching up to people.

Tom Riggins (Michael Ironside) is another interesting character, good at his job but not good at much of anything outside of that job. His relationship with Dark is stronger than his relationship with any of his ex-wives or estranged children. It provides an interesting dynamic between the men throughout the novel. Along with Constance Brielle (Ava Gaudet), Riggins is Dark's main support within Special Circs. Constance is a character that doesn't get much focus in Dark Origins, but I find myself drawn to her. I'm curious to see how her character progresses in subsequent novels. Secretary of Defense Norman Wycoff (Glenn Morshower) is another one I'm keeping my eye on. He is an intriguing character, but he is rarely the focal point of the action in Dark Origins. The character is undoubtedly important to the story, and it will be interesting to see where they take him.

Dark Origins is more than a traditional novel. It's the book that has everything. It has an interesting story, it has video segments to add another dimension to the storytelling, it has a social community at Level26.com where readers can interact and find extra content, and it even has gorgeous, twisted illustrations sprinkled throughout the book. Each image is relevant, and there is a lot to appreciate about Marc Ecko's work. From the very first black-and-white drawing you come across, the illustrations set a tone for the novel. I often found myself turning back to get another look at some of the previous drawings.

As Zuiker explained in his most recent interview with CSI Files, Dark Origins is the first Digi-Novel. It combines a traditional crime novel with short video clips called cyber bridges that bring the characters to life and drive readers from the book to the internet and back again. The reader completes several chapters of the book, and then he or she is given a code to log on to Level26.com and access the relevant cyber bridge.

Without a good story, video segments and online social communities are icing without a cake to hold them up. Fortunately for Level 26, the story is the strongest part of the Digi-Novel. The video segments add another dimension to the characters and narrative, but the story easily stands on its own. It's good that it does because Level 26 represents a brand new approach to fiction, and readers may not be prepared to completely abandon the traditional novel to try it out. And while many people are constantly plugged in to the World Wide Web with their portable devices, there are still a lot of us who aren't. My means of internet access is a shared desktop computer plunked in the middle of the family room. Lingering near the computer in order to watch the cyber bridges as they come is a bit limiting, and the content of the bridges is not always something you'd want to watch with a 15-year-old looking over your shoulder.

I could have saved up several bridges and watched them all at once when I had the time, and my comprehension of the story would not have suffered. However, I wanted to experience the novel the way it was intended: read several chapters, watch a video, and then jump back into the book. It was a bit cumbersome at first, and I would often have to set the book aside until I was able to access the computer to watch the cyber bridge. That was frustrating, but by the time I got near the end of the book, I was used to the process. However, it would have been better to have an internet-accessible laptop sitting next to me as I read.

When I watched the first cyber bridge, I wondered just what I was getting myself into. Some elements were slightly over-the-top, and I was worried that the bridges would push the envelope just for the sake of pushing the envelope. As I continued reading the book and watching the video clips, I was pleased to find that, with one or two exceptions, the cyber bridges did an excellent job of enhancing the narrative rather than distracting from it.

As a woman who tends to nitpick TV shows and the like, I couldn't help being a bit thrown by discrepancies between the book and the cyber bridges. A blue nightie becoming a tank top and panties is not a major issue, but the cyber bridges are an integral part of the book. Every detail is important if two separate mediums are being combined into a cohesive final product.

I like that the bridges covered a wide range of scenes, from Sqweegel's twisted brand of torture to romance, lab analysis and even a few phone messages; however, for that reason, I enjoyed some of the bridges far more than others. I liked the visuals provided by a lab scene, but a romantic scene with Dark and Sibby felt gratuitous to me. The relationship between them is developed so well in the novel that I didn't need to see that particular encounter brought to life. Overall, I think the bridges maintained a pretty even balance. I also enjoyed the acting from the stars of the cyber bridges, although some of the dialogue and delivery fell short of my expectations for segments created by the man behind CSI and starring such an excellent cast.

As a fan of the CSI franchise, I was intrigued by the premise of Dark Origins. A serial killer that leaves no evidence behind? Forensic evidence is the bread and butter of the CSI shows, but there is rarely such evidence for Dark and the Special Circs team to work with. Instead, Dark has to track Sqweegel down by getting inside his mind, and that's a very twisted place to be.

Several segments of the novel offer nods to the forensic drama that made Zuiker famous, and there are a few lab analysis scenes that could fit into an episode of CSI. In fact, franchise fans may recognize the setting of several cyber bridges as the crime lab where Gary Sinise (Mac Taylor) and Melina Kanakaredes (Stella Bonasera) film CSI: New York.

Dark Origins has two planned sequels, and the series may continue beyond that. Fans can submit ideas for new characters and storylines by visiting Level26.com. Dark Origins is a scary, suspenseful ride, and the end leaves the reader wanting to find out more. I'm looking forward to reading the next installment of the Level 26 story and seeing the Digi-Novel concept evolve and come into its own.

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Rachel Trongo is the news writer for CSI Files.