Crime fiction
Jakub Szamałek
The Hidden Web

A breath of fresh air in a genre that so easily slips into cliché

Julita Wójcicka stared at the letters on her computer screen. They stubbornly continued to glow green. Not good.

‘C’mon, come on…’ she whispered, twirling a heavily gnawed pencil in her fingers.

‘Told you,’ Piotrek said from the seat next to her. He took another sip of his tea, wiping his fashionably trimmed moustache afterwards. ‘Even our followers won’t fall for such brazen clickbait.’

‘Ha!’ Julita pumped her fist in triumph. ‘Read ‘em and weep!’

Her headline’s background had turned red. That meant in the last minute at least one thousand people had been lured in by Julita’s article, tantalizingly en- titled “ILONA ZAJĄC FLASHES BIKINI PICS ON HER GRAM: I’M NOT GONNA JUST SIT AND LET HATERS CALL ME FAT [GALLERY].” As a result, the text would be promoted to their portal’s homepage, leaving be- hind the dusty recesses of the “Culture” section.

Piotrek said nothing. Instead, he let out a dramatic sigh and turned back to his MacBook. Julita understood his frustration. He hadn’t had an article go red for a week. His most recent attempts – “THE STARS OF ‘THE CLAN’, THEN AND NOW”, “A MUSHROOM HUNTER’S GRISLY HARVEST”, “KOALA BEARS ON SLEDS – CUTEST THING YOU’LL WATCH TODAY” – were all green or, horror of horrors, blue, the mark of the Internet’s complete indifference. Worse still, Piotrek spent hours polishing each article, endlessly swapping sentences around, racking his brain for synonyms and unique turns of phrase. Julita, meanwhile, had prepped her piece about Ilona Zając in about fifteen minutes, smoke break included.

Julita stood up from her desk, stretched and plodded over to the kitchen nook. With a red article in the bank, she had fulfilled her quota and could take the rest of the day easy. The water burbled in their cheap, calcified kettle and she poured it over her instant coffee, filling the air with its pleasant, familiar aroma. Julita lifted her furiously red MEGANEWS.PL mug, took a small sip and cast her eyes over the office.

At a dozen-odd white desks, computers hummed, mice clicked and a soft, blueish light glowed, reflecting off the users’ glasses. There were two gigantic, wall-mounted TVs, one showing the homepage superimposed with a heatmap to chart the popularity of featured articles, the second tuned to a 24-hour news channel. Opposite them, glass partitions separated off three rooms (management, HR, and IT); in the corner stood printers and a scanner; out of the windows, the wide asphalt of Cybernetics Street and a cloudy sky latticed with construction cranes.

This is not how Julita had imagined her career in journalism. She had dreamed of working for a prestigious paper like Wyborcza or a serious weekly like Polityka or Newsweek. Heated discussions during morning editorial meetings, finishing copy at three in the morning, meeting politicians in smoke-filled restaurants, anonymous informers in trench coats sliding binders of receipts across sticky bar tables – that sort of thing. Julita had even snagged an (unpaid, of course) internship at such a publication. For three months, she had sorted papers, organized archives and moderated Internet forums, hoping someone would notice her and take her under their wing. Thing is, big papers have stacks of interns, including the golden youth of Warsaw, with influential parents watching over them in the wings. Next to them, Julita, fresh off the bus from the provincial town of Żuków, in a wardrobe fished out of rummage bins, had a hard time catching anyone’s eye.

But then she happened across a listing for a job at MEGANEWS.PL. They were looking for a journalist to join their news division, promising a young team, competitive pay and business trips. Their shiny new office building had made a strong first impression; their editor-in-chief had switched right away to the informal “you” and laughed at her jokes. Whatever, she’d thought. YOLO.

Excerpt translated by Travis Currit

Extended English sample available: krystyna.kolakowska@gwfoksal.pl

Crime fiction
Jakub Szamałek
The Hidden Web

A breath of fresh air in a genre that so easily slips into cliché

Publisher: Foksal, Warszawa 2019-2020
Translation rights: Foksal, krystyna.kolakowska@gwfoksal.pl, Film rights for The Hidden Web optioned by NAIMA FILM

After graduating from journalism school, Julita – the book’s main character – wanted to become a reporter and to fight for the truth, crafting articles on important issues. Yet she ends up at an online tabloid where the name of the game is cheap thrills and celebrity news, and the journalists’ main task is achieving the highest possible “clickability.” One day, as she is reporting on a car accident that killed the former star of a TV show, Julita notices a small detail in a photograph that seems to undermine the official version of events. She starts digging into the topic – yet someone is doing their best to throw her off the trail… In consequence, Julita loses her job and reputation, while even her loved ones turn their backs on her. We read with horror how little it takes to ruin someone’s life: Julita discovers someone has intercepted her email password, access to her smartphone memory, and the entry code to her apartment building…

It is of course a truism to say that technology plays an enormous role in today’s world – both in the life of individuals, as shown in the first book in this series, and in society (the sequel is focused on online elections). It also reminds us that online privacy is almost non- existent. Yet by showing us the potential consequences for the go-getting, smooth-tongued, determined, and all-around sympathetic and authentic Julita, Szamałek is much more convincing than a dozen news stories on this very subject. The same could be said of the security tips Julita receives from Janek Tran – a police officer and cybersecurity specialist. The character of Janek, who is half-Polish and half-Vietnamese, is a breath of fresh air in a genre that so easily slips into cliché.

The Hidden Web has everything a reader would expect from an ideal thriller: fantastic pacing, an intriguing mystery, compelling characters and a background of present-day social issues.

Agnieszka Urbanowska Translated by Sean Gasper Bye

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69

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