by Jane Pek
Whether the digital takeover of our lives is a blessing or a deadly curse may be debatable, but it’s certainly a boon to crime writers. In Jane Pek’s debut, “The Verifiers,” social media, the big world of technology and internet connectivity provide fertile new ground for people to cheat, scam, and possibly kill each other.
The narrator and protagonist Claudia Lin is young, Asian, bookworm, queer, Queens native and a bit lazy. After quitting the fast-paced finance job her successful brother had arranged for her, Claudia enlists to do some kind of detective work in a shady venture called Veracity that validates the identities and stories of users on dating apps. The job essentially involves cyber following people online and following them regularly for the rest of the time. Claudia is not well-suited to her new position: a bit Luddite, she has never used a dating site or even had much to do with the digital world. Its main feature is its dedication to detective fiction. This lifelong preparation is both exposed and disastrous when mysterious client Iris Lettriste hires Veracity to investigate two suitors, one of whom she has never met. Veracity’s bread and butter liars – cheating spouses, fabulists falsifying their job or age, game players juggling between apps and profiles. But Claudia senses there’s something else in Iris, and when she disappears from both the real and digital worlds, leaving Veracity (and her billing) and deleting all her profiles, she lures Claudia on an adventure befitting her fictional hero, Inspector. Yuan. Was Iris suicidal? Or was he killed? Was she actually Iris – or her own sister? Depressed, broke, and heartbroken, had he dropped out of journalism school, or was he just a brave investigative reporter about to blow the dating industry’s lids?
The chapters of the novel devoted to Claudia’s personal life are well-executed and appealing, but not particularly fresh. His overly critical immigrant mother, his overly ambitious or dizzying older sisters, his adorable loser/unwanted artist friends and nerds, their clever party buddies and hang-outs are cute and highly relatable—but not exactly bigger-than-life. The book kicks into a higher, wilder gear when it comes to foreign, less predictable, and possibly malevolent figures, notably the glamorous Becks Rittel, who has a flair for friction, the ability to make socially unacceptable comments, and shares an erotic commentary on “The Blonde Assassin.” Don’t blame Claudia, which the reader can’t miss even if Claudia herself seems unaware. Also, Claudia’s enigmatic boss, Komla Atsina, the soft-spoken Ghanaian tech wizard, her sweet, graceful, completely controlled demeanor makes her equally believable as the undercover hero or evil genius.
“The Verifiers” delivers the dark tropes that Claudia loves (mystery client, amateur detective, loads of red herrings) but with a decidedly 21st-century twist. And the real mystery is original and intriguing, at least for this reader. The question of whether the people we meet on the Internet are who they say they are is a really troubling question. Scammers, crooks, psychopaths – or something weirder and scarier? What if these are bots rather than humans, or what Pek calls “synths” created to deceive and control us? Are we surrendering to algorithms that know us better than we do? Do we trade our freedom of choice, thought, even desire, for comfort and fantasy? Are we unable to tell what is real, or even becoming indifferent? Investigating these issues, “Verifiers” take us deeper into a labyrinth with no clear exit. Except, of course, to delete our apps and stop searching for truth and happiness online. But we will never do that. will we do?