Probably the most interesting thing about The Watcher in the Wall, the fifth entry in Owen Laukkanen’s Stevens and Windermere series of sausage-factory fiction, is the promise of its title: someone in the wall is watching. Who could it be?
It’s a great way to start off what might have been another decent adventure for the duo of crime-fighters, especially after last year’s decent The Stolen Ones, which at the time led me to write it was “certainly a step up from Laukkanen’s last adventure for Stevens and Windermere, and this gives me hope for the next.”
Instead, we’re saddled with a badly-written exploitation thriller populated by badly written characters drawn in thick Crayola stereotypes and given such unrealistic actions to play out that it’s impossible to identify with any of them. It also doesn’t help that Laukkanen continues to endow his villains with cartoonishly violent superpowers in the third-act, right up to the excessively violent outburst towards the finale.
So much for hope.
I’m also coming clean about the timing of this review; the book was originally published earlier this year in March, but if you’ll note the date of this review (July) you’ll see I missed that window by a wide mile. Excuses, reasons, and other rationale for my tardiness aside, I didn’t want to let this one pass as my record for reviewing each of the Stevens and Windermere books is pretty good, at least since 2013’s not-terrible second entry, Criminal Enterprise.
That timing is important because, just last month, I reviewed Stephen King’s trilogy-concluding thriller End of Watch, which also featured a diabolical killer using technology to compel teens to commit suicide online. Chronologically, Laukkanen’s book may come first, but King takes the premise in an entirely different direction, one – despite its supernatural elements – is still more believable than what Laukkanen has cooked up here.
It’s also disheartening that, for a series about protagonists Stevens and Windermere, Minnesota State Investigator Kirk Stevens, half the team, barely factors in the story. This is FBI Special Agent Carla Windermere’s show as Laukkanen focuses almost exclusively on her constant internal monologue, much of which is focused on latterday pangs of guilt for allowing an old classmate to have been bullied (to death).
We’ve got the villain: Randall Gruber, a chubby, balding stereotype straight out of central casting. His abuse at the hands of his equally stereotypical step-father was apparently the magical catalyst that turned him into the manipulating psychopathic he became. He is, quite literally, the ‘watcher in the wall’ – the wall in this case being that in his step-father’s double-wide trailer that gives him a window into the room of his unknowing step-sister.
Through it he’s able to watch her go about her day-to-day activities, especially those she’d rather nobody find out about. Over time, Gruber discovers that he’s able to manipulate people by playing off the private information he has, which he then uses for the most nefarious means.
Enter Madison Mackenzie, a dimbulb teenager who just transferred to her new school and isn’t fitting in. She’s also contemplating suicide, of course, and soon forges a sick camaraderie with one of Gruber’s false online profiles on a suicide website. It’s within the forums Gruber is able to convince Madison that he’s actually a cute Midwestern boy from Iowa. Well, a cute Midwestern boy seeking a partner to commit suicide with, of course.
She’s also a dead-ringer for his deceased step-sister, a fact he uses to justify keeping Madison all for himself, luring her deeper into his web of deceit and lies, right back to the double-wide trailer where it all began.
The inevitable nationwide cat and mouse chase, as we’ve come to expect from this series, says a lot more about the protagonists’ ineptitude and failure to logically (and ethically) figure out their strategy and use the tools available to them. The more detail Laukkanen gives in describing how Stevens and Windermere (but mostly Windermere) hunt down the digital breadcrumbs left by Gruber, the less believable and more fantastical the effort becomes. The entirety of their hunt effectively becomes “getting it wrong, then getting it right”, flying off to investigate, repeat.
A good thriller, or even a mediocre one, is only effective when there’s actual things at stake, or at the very least presented like there are. How can we be expected to root for a team of heroes so thoroughly incompetent and milquetoast that the author has to resort to injecting the answer into the story for them to ‘succeed’?
The Watcher in the Wall isn’t just the worst of the Stevens and Windermere series; it represents such a complete backward slide in quality and narrative staging that it may signal an existential end for these characters. I’m sure Laukkanen is sincere in the acknowledgments when he urges those contemplating suicide to seek help, but he’s clearly in over his head trying to deliver an action/thriller based on the concept’s exploitation. Which is sad, as there are plenty of good ideas here, but even these are so mishandled that it’s not possible to recommend the book for them. I can only hope the next Stevens and Windermere adventure is better than this one; it won’t be hard.