It’s been several months since FBI Special Agent Rose Blake narrowly missed capturing the Backwoods Butcher, and almost died in the attempt. But now she has a different kind of serial killer in her sights: two men have been horribly murdered – the first was burned to death in his chair, the second had every bone in his body broken. The only evidence that connects them – besides the fact that they were both working on an ultra-top secret Defence project – is the strange all-over bodysuit they were wearing, a state-of-the-art cyber-simulation Skin that is about to be released onto the home-gamer market. But as Rose investigates the murders, she doesn’t realise that the Backwoods Butcher is about to resurface with a new face and a new identity and turn her life – and the lives of those she loves – into a living nightmare. Because the Backwoods Butcher has a new ally, an ally he has never met who knows how to hack into the most private and protected of computer systems – an ally who has seemingly murdered the two men whose deaths Rose Blake is investigating.

Playing with Death is a promising first outing for FBI Special Agent Rose Blake. It is a high-concept thriller that, whether by luck or extremely good judgement, has managed to tap into current paranoia about the dangers of the internet, and whether the government (in this case, the US government) should be controlling what we have access to. Authors Simon Scarrow and Lee Francis have obviously put a lot of research into the technical aspects of this story, and it’s to their credit that Playing with Death remains engaging and tensely readable even during the chapters when characters are sitting around a keyboard, with one early sequence involving tracking down a computer hacker being especially fine. In tone, it’s a little like Thomas Harris collides with Michael Crichton, and although it is structurally like every other police procedural we’ve either read or watched, and the clichéd ending is something of a disappointment, Playing with Death definitely has enough twists and surprises to keep you turning the pages.