Review: Vanished by Karen E. Olson

Vanished by Karen E. Olson is the fourth book in the Black Hat thriller series, which follows computer hacker Tina Adler, who heads to Paris, France, in search of the truth but discovers that someone is close on her trail (available February 1, 2018).

Connecticut’s Karen E. Olson made a name for herself among crime writers and readers by penning two critically acclaimed “cozy” series (notice the use of quotation marks there): the Annie Seymour and Tattoo Shop mysteries. Those books garnered accolades (the Sarah Anne Freed Memorial Award) and nominations (Shamus & Gumshoe) and allowed Olson—an editor and journalist by trade—to exit the newsroom before the industry imploded. In 2015, she charted new territory with Hidden—the first book in her Black Hat thriller series featuring Nicole Jones (aka Tina Adler), a computer hacker on the run.

Vanished—the fourth, and potentially final, book in that series—finds Tina living in relative obscurity in Charleston, South Carolina, where she’s working as an artist. There’s still a bounty on her head for having once bilked millions of dollars from mobster Tony DeMarco (among others of her father’s unsuspecting clients) with the assistance of an online accomplice known simply as “Tracker,” but distance from their shared hometown of Miami has fostered some sense of security. That is until one of her buyers, Madeline Whittier, recognizes her, necessitating yet another departure. 

She is joined on the run by fellow hacker Spencer Cross, a confidante of her boyfriend, Zeke Chapman; Chapman is an undercover FBI agent (previously revealed as “Tracker”) who went off-radar following the events of Betrayed. When a surveillance camera captures footage of him at an ATM in Paris, France—the same machine that’s been connected with the disappearance of an American student, Ryan Whittier—Tina suspects that he’s in trouble and insists on rushing to his aid despite knowing that it could be a trap. Her return to Paris is a full-circle moment given that she and Chapman have a history there dating back to their younger years—one that ended with his nearly bleeding out on the floor of a houseboat after being shot and sent her fleeing to Block Island.

The uncertainty of what awaits her in Paris is compounded by her travels with Spencer, which are fraught with danger. As they traverse the country, Tina must weigh her personal proclivities against her paranoia—though the emergence of an online figure known only as d4rkn!te confirms her gut feeling that something nefarious is afoot. (Chapman also reveals himself, but only through the veil of chat rooms.) With the knowledge that she is being followed, can Tina evade capture? And, perhaps more to the point, can she trust Spencer? Does she even have a choice? Her complicity in this operation, whatever it is, only grows after reaching the City of Lights, where she must make herself visible to assist Chapman in his endgame.   

The story itself works as a standalone but will be more impactful to those who are familiar with the overall series arc. Olson excels at keeping readers off balance by interspersing intense action scenes (there’s a great one on a train that’s sure to rival anything in The Commuter) with online skullduggery and moments of introspection. Indeed, Tina—who has spent decades grappling with her identity—is forced to come to terms with who she is and what she’ll do to protect those she cares about. There’s also an interesting juxtaposition of character and setting; Tina is somewhat ill-suited to the genteel ways of the south, but the more cosmopolitan nature of the Parisian backdrop affords Tina the opportunity to indulge more liberating facets of her persona.

Should Vanished turn out to be the finale to the Black Hat thriller series, Karen E. Olson has given her characters—and her readers—a fitting farewell. That’s not to say there aren’t threads left to be pulled; there are, and one more book would do nicely in tying up loose ends. But Tina Adler has gone a long way toward reconciling her past with her present, and that’s as good a place as any to leave her. And once again, Olson has masterfully balanced technological wizardry with time-tested storytelling sensibilities, resulting in a terrifically twisted tale that celebrates the now even as it transcends it.

See also: Q&A with Karen E. Olson, Author of Betrayed

 

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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.

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