Author: John L. Betcher
ISBN: 978-1451512717

Click Here To PurchaseThe Missing Element: A James Becker Mystery

This book was a lot of fun.  It is the kind of book I love to read and it is the kind of book I try to write.  John Betcher has written a real gem.  Like a good port, you can enjoy it any time.  It is an entertaining addition to the thriller/suspense class of books with just a dash of sci-fi—the style lies somewhere between Carl Hiaasen and Michael Connelly, although the author claims to emulate Robert B. Parker.  A difficult task, but he comes close in entertainment value.  There is not much negative I can say about the book.  But if you want more information, read on.

In summary, a Minneapolis computer genius named Katherine Whitson is kidnapped. One of her friends knows a sheriff’s deputy who asks James “Beck” Becker and his wife Elizabeth to help find her.  Beck is a former military intelligence specialist and Elizabeth is a former CIA code-cracker.  All the latter’s skills and connections come to play as the husband and wife team frustrates an international cyber-espionage threat.

While the threat may seem far fetched, the description of chip production in this novel and its associated potential hazards for cyber attacks for military or industrial competition purposes comes too close to reality.  On page 265 the author lists some of the things that could be done with the information collected—some of these are less believable.  But the threat is there.

Yet the main theme of this novel, that the threat of cyber attacks becomes more and more important as the complexities of the chip manufacturing process bring us to the point where machines design the chips, is a very real one.  The Terminator series of movies treats this theme in violent, action-packed Hollywood style.  Real life is and will be a whisper compared to the Terminator’s bang, but it could be equally insidious.  Do you know where the chipset in your computer was made?

In order to reduce military costs the Pentagon often talks about using more and more COTS, or consumer off the shelf, products.  Considering that they are often far behind the technological state-of-the-art, this policy often makes sense.  Yet those COTS products, or components of them, are often made somewhere outside the U.S.  Add to this the absence of a “human element,” the man in the manufacturing loop, and you have the ingredients of a potential disaster.  Who was it that said, “It’s only paranoia if it’s not real”?

Many people often look down their nose at POD and non-traditional forms of publishing, but there are a lot of entertaining and interesting books out there in POD land that deserve readers’ attentions.  This book is one of those.  It was produced as part of the Amazon CreateSpace program so it exists in hard copy and as an eBook available for download to your Kindle. 

POD, eBooks, and similar programs outside the scope of the traditional publishing houses should not be passed up.  Authors, even famous ones, who want complete control over their product, are often choosing this route.  Sure, they have to work hard on marketing, but traditional publishers help little there anyway, unless you are already established like Hiaasen or Connelly. 

These new publishing alternatives are linked to the internet so quality control can be a problem (medical advice and Wikipedia articles also come to mind).  The reader has to depend more on reviews like this one, extracts provided by the author or publisher, or peeks inside the book (like those offered by Amazon and Google) but he will also miss many excellent reads if he ignores these books.

This book is so good I have very few nits to pick, only one of them associated with its POD origins.  First of all, the cover is horribly mundane.  If I remember correctly the author has to choose between templates but I’m not that familiar with CreateSpace.  I’ve become a firm believer that covers are important—even the thumbnail image of the cover on Amazon is important—so any POD service that limits the author’s choice is questionable.

Another point:  It is not clear where Beck previously worked.  Maybe his job was so clandestine that we don’t have a need-to-know.  I would have thought that Elizabeth, the wife, cracked her code in the NSA, but, with the re-org in the U.S. intelligence universe, it’s hard to tell who does what anymore (maybe that’s the idea?).  At any rate, I would have liked to know a little more about Betcher’s heroes.      

Editing in this book is generally excellent.  Bad editing (and I’m talking typos, etc, not the author’s turn-of-phrase or choice of style, what is called “the author’s voice”) often plagues POD. Professional editors are worth the money especially if you have problems editing your own material.  I only found one glaring error in Element: on page 276 the author is debating whether to give Whitson a free pass.  He clearly means the villain.

Finally, since I started life in California, I like my wine.  Once uncorked, I would never put Merlot in the refrigerator (page 75).  I would either finish the bottle (preferred) or put another cork stopper in the bottle (you generally can’t use the original cork) and set it on the bar for later consumption.  Maybe I’m just picky, but reds are just not refrigerated.  Sorry, John.

Click Here To PurchaseThe Missing Element: A James Becker Mystery