Words can hurt, and in the case of Owen Laukkanen’s compelling, thought-provoking new thriller, The Watcher in the Wall, they can be enough to kill.
Laukkenen’s recurring FBI agents Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere pursue an Internet troll who encourages fragile teenagers to commit suicide, while recording their final moments via webcam for a black market on the dark web. The case takes on a deeper meaning for Windermere, who continues to berate herself over a past mistake in which she stood by as a fellow classmate was bullied in school to the point she one day never came back. Catching the predator in this case serves as a chance, however slight, for redemption. Interestingly, in the acknowledgements, Laukkanen admits he also dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts as a teenager, making the book even more deeply personal.
Laukkenen’s fast-paced prose and short chapters pull readers along on a cross-country pursuit to identify the predator behind the online suicide forum and stop him before he can rack up more victims. They encounter numerous technological roadblocks along the way and must rely on help from the FBI’s crack technology team to penetrate the suspect’s cybertrail.
Laukkenen based the novel in part on the real-life case of William Melchert-Dinkel, a Minnesota man whose online “encouragement” drove an Ottawa teen to commit suicide in 2009, and who is suspected of entering into fake suicide pacts with at least five other victims. If parents were afraid of whom their impressionable kids are socializing with online before, they will only be more wary after reading this eerily timely and poignant book.
Readers of Laukkanen’s earlier novels in the FBI series, including The Professionals and The Stolen Ones, need not worry that the case is a mask for social commentary, however. It’s a true page-turner up to the final act, which quickly escalates into a fiery exchange of gunfire and action-packed pursuit of the perp.