Arts: What George did next

By rights, George from the Famous Five should be in her dotage. In Denise Danks's hands, she's a sassy cyber detective.
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The Independent Culture
EVER WONDERED what happened to George of The Famous Five? How did the passionate, sulky tomboy fare when she grew up? Crime writer Denise Danks "really loved George" when she was a child. Half-Greek and nicknamed Gypsy-girl because of her colouring, Danks identified with George. "She was dark and hot-headed - the one that didn't fit in."

When Danks wrote her first novel, The Pizza House Crash, 10 years ago, she decided to do "a grown-up version" of The Famous Five. She wheeled on the whole gang - even Timmy the dog. But George was the star. "I wondered what sort of character George would be, having had that father and that insufferable cousin Julian."

In five books, the latest of which is Phreak, George continues to hobnob with Inspectors and tear round after criminals. But it is a jolly far cry from summers on Kirrin Island. In George's new world, a cyber serial- killer is on the loose. Bodies get dumped in metal drums in seedy alleyways, while a hard man muscling in on someone's manor ends up with his face sliced off.

No matter that Enid Blyton's character would now be well over 60 (she was 11 in 1942), Dank's George is a sexy computer-journalist. She smokes dope, is frequently hungover and, in Phreak, sleeps with both a Kray- style villain and an Asian boy who likes to be called Paloma.

"The reason that she appeals to me is that she does screw up," says Danks. "George seems amoral, not just because of the people she has sex with but because she will quite possibly just take the money and run." In Phreak, George finds herself getting involved in a telephone scam: is that a mobile in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

In the Boy's Own, techno-thriller genre, Danks is one of few women operators and the only one to have won a Raymond Chandler Fulbright Award for most- promising crime writer. It all began when she was still a journalist and some subliminal software landed on her desk.

"While you loaded this software onto your machine, it would flash a message like Don't Smoke: I Don't Like Cigarettes or I'm Not Hungry," says Danks, smiling. "The software was intended for corporate America. It was to instil the work ethic into all those people at banks of terminals and make them work harder." It seemed like a great idea for a thriller set in the city. The Pizza House Crash begins with the auto-erotic death of cousin Julian, winched up in a harness, clad only in Janet Reger underwear. "I was really pleased to finish him off in the first chapter," says Danks with a laugh. "He had to go and he had to go badly."

Since her debut, Danks has covered the territory from virtual reality to cyberporn. But to Danks, it is not the actual technology that is important but the implications. "It's the potential of technology for anonymity, the speed with which things can be done and the fact that you don't need to be near the scene to make it happen."

Danks is also fascinated by the way criminals get round systems, identifying and exploiting loopholes. "When someone pulls something over on a big bank, I always have this sneaky, sneaky admiration," admits Danks. "What kind of front must they have to do it?" She shakes her head. "It's also a kind of relief that the system can be broken. It's probably why we have a soft spot for hackers."

In Dank's new book, the hackers like to play with phones and ride for free on the global telecommunications highway, the largest computer network in the world. There is drug-dealing Chronic, and Abdul (aka Little Stevie Wonder) who operates from Talk Talk Mobiles on Leytonstone High Road.

Phreak is set in London's East End where Danks lives. "I love the way you can go from a well-to-do part and then cross the road and be in an area which is very Asian. In the East End there's always wheeler-dealing, with immigrants trying to make their lives better and people exploiting them."

Two stories got Danks thinking. She'd been listening to a case about mobile-phone chipping - where analogue phones had been stolen, cloned and then used as a phone exchange. The scam had been worth millions. "I spoke to a local police officer who said there's a market in this area for foreign calls, and people like to talk."

It may be good to talk but, according to Danks, criminals don't carry mobile phones. "You can be tracked to within five yards. There was a guy who shot someone and while it was happening his mobile phone rang - the police traced the call."

Then there was the telephone exchange concealed at the back of a tobacconist's. "It wasn't an exchange as we recognise it but racks and racks of cloned mobile phones. A mobile-phone scam seemed like a good way to show how the East End looks nowadays."

Danks maps out her territory lovingly with its "third world Whipps Cross Hospital", the high street in "a mist of transmission fumes", and the grim boarded-up shops and premises rented out to charities which "recycle fifth-hand clothes". Forest Gate, meanwhile, is described as living and breathing in "a cheap clutter of fast food, deal-making and discounting".

Since the Krays ruled the streets, things have changed. Phreak does have an old-style villain, an ex-boxer, but a new kind too - a Bengali protection gang. "There was an incident in a curry house in Whitechapel where someone was scalped. Some attacks are assumed to be racist when they are actually inter-gang stuff."

Breaking the law is a cut-throat business. As George discovers, there is competition between the little gangs on the Internet and the big gangs on the streets. And fantasists who blow away online baddies are no match for the real thing. "The big boys who are interested in money, they are the really scary ones, not the hackers," says Danks. "They're the ones that can kill you."

`Phreak' is published by Victor Gollancz, pounds 9.99

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