Have you spit into a tube and sent your saliva to a genetic testing service? Did you check the little box giving permission for your genetic data to be used in scientific research? The most popular services promise privacy, that your personal information is separated from your genetic data so you cannot be identified. Michael Connelly’s latest thriller, Fair Warning, imagines a nightmare scenario where release of genetic information empowers a serial killer targeting women.
Journalist Jack McAvoy brought down serial killers in several other Connelly novels, including The Poet and The Scarecrow. Similar to another of Connelly’s characters, former LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, McAvoy is now older and no longer working for a prestigious outfit. (Bosch now works as a reserve officer for the San Fernando PD.) McAvoy, who once wrote for the Los Angles Times, now is an investigative reporter for the website FairWarning, whose mission is uncovering consumer fraud. (FairWarning is an actual website and Connelly serves on the board.)
FairWarning has a small staff headed by editor Myron Levine (actually the real name of the site’s editor), who spends a great deal of his time soliciting for donations. While FairWarning’s stories appear online, they are often picked up by mainstream news operations. McAvoy is putting the finishing touches on one he hopes will generate excitement, about a con artist bilking gullible targets. After sending the story to Levine, he heads home, his unimpressive and threadbare apartment alone a statement in how far he’s fallen.
After pulling into his garage, he finds he has guests – two LAPD detectives who want to ask him about a woman he met in a nearby bar a year ago and took back to his apartment for a one night stand. The woman, Christina Portrero, was brutally murdered and McAvoy’s name found in her address book. Realizing he’s a possible suspect, McAvoy puts an end to the interview, but agrees to supply a DNA sample, confident it will exonerate him.
Murder was once McAvoy’s beat and even though he’s a person of interest in Portrero’s death, he can’t stop himself from investigating. Portrero died from atlanto-occipital dislocation (AOD) a violent assault that separates the spinal column from the skull. Doing a deeper dive, including posting on a site used for medical examiners and coroners nationwide, McAvoy soon discovers other women who died in similar fashion. He also comes up with something else the women had in common – all of them had submitted their DNA to a testing site called GT23. Knowing he’s onto what could be a big story, McAvoy reaches out to Rachel Walling, an old source and former girlfriend. Rachel lost her job as an FBI agent after she was outed as Jack’s source. She now runs a company called RAW Data, doing routine searches for corporations. Initially she brushes off Jack’s pleas to get involved in his investigation, but when things heat up (both professionally and personally), she’s all in.
Although Myron resists Jack’s efforts to pursue the story, once he sees the investigation evolving, he gives the green light. Myron also insists that another reporter, Emily Atwater, come on board to help. Jack is upset, seeing his solo byline and the chance to get back into the game, disappearing. But when Emily comes up with information that begins to open other avenues, he agrees. However, the two continue to spar over territory with Jack coming off as a bit of a bully.
Like McAvoy, Rachel is eager to recover some of her credibility, in her case with the FBI. Myron, Emily, and even Jack agree that it’s time to share their information with law enforcement. (The two LAPD detectives remain in the dark.) The assailant, who calls himself The Shrike, after a bird with a brutal way of killing its prey, soon realizes he’s in danger of being outed. He begins to target those able to identify him. Connelly keeps the action at a fever pitch, the last 20 pages fly by.
While the story is fiction, in the acknowledgements, Connelly leaves the reader with a chilling thought. The Food & Drug Administration is responsible for regulating these genetic testing services to make sure abuses do not occur. To date, the agency continues to debate any possible rules leaving consumers to fend for themselves.
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