Sometimes all you want out of a thriller is a helluva good fast-reading dose of excitement, and that’s exactly what Owen Laukkanen’s The Watcher in the Wall sets out to do.
With lots of short chapters (141, to be precise), usually just a page or two long, in the James Patterson mode.
And short paragraphs.
With short sentences in the short paragraphs.
In the short chapters.
I’m not actually sneering at this: I’m admiring Laukkanen for the sheer skill of his storytelling. Yes, he uses devices that can often seem tired and mechanical when used elsewhere, but in his capable hands they add to the tension and help keep the pages flying.
Which is exactly his intent.
An online predator, going under the moniker Ashley Frey, is encouraging depressed, loner teenagers to commit suicide, offering to “partner” them on the basis of “you do it and I’ll follow suit.” “Ashley,” who presents as a pretty teenage girl, even persuades them to screen the proceedings via webcam, so “she” can see how to do it right.
As cops Carla Windermere and Kirk Stevens soon discover, “Ashley” isn’t a teenager at all. The predator is recording the videoed suicides and selling them to snuff enthusiasts. Can they track him down before he lures any more teens to their deaths?
Carla Windermere — a tough black woman who’s no longer in her first flush of youth — is a great character, and Laukkanen rightly keeps the principal focus on her among the various cops working the case. Even her partner, Kirk Stevens, is very much a member of the supporting cast. The other main protagonist is of course the predator, who soon becomes a murderer. Although he’s painted as a monster, and looks like one, he’s actually a fairly intelligent monster, and we learn what made him this way. The fact that he’s not just some mindless, dehumanized villain adds a good deal to the excitement of the novel.
Laukkanen tells us in his Acknowledgements that this is a very personal book for him, as he’s known the Black Dog of suicidal depression intimately since his youth. He captures pretty well the difference in emotions between a teenage character in the novel who’s genuinely intent on killing himself and another for whom it’s . . . well, not a game, exactly, but an option she’s readily willing to be talked out of.
All in all, this isn’t great literature — and doesn’t aim to be — but it’s a damn’ fine read. I impulse-bought another Laukkanen at the same time as I bought this one, and I’m glad I did.