When I was a teenager, I read Sidney Sheldon’s lurid novel Bloodline, which had a subplot about snuff films (movies in which a person is killed onscreen, for the purposes of sexually gratifying the viewer). This was back in the pre-Internet dark ages, so I was unable to find any additional information on whether or not snuff films were real or just a figment of Sheldon’s imagination. Not even the Ann Landers Encyclopedia, my usual go-to source for questions you didn’t dare ask an adult, mentioned them.
A few years later, I remember hearing about the Faces of Death movies, which seemed designed to appeal more to teen boys who would watch it on a dare rather than to people looking for sick sexual kicks. But aside from that, I can’t say that snuff films were ever on my pop-cultural radar screen—that is, until this year, when I’ve read two different books with plots centered around them. I am dearly hoping there won’t be a third.
Owen Laukkanen is one of my favorite thriller writers—this is the fifth book in his series about FBI agent Carla Windermere and her partner Kirk Stevens. The books provide a pure adrenaline rush, with short, action-packed chapters (the 350-page The Watcher in the Wall has 141 of them). When the series started (with 2012’s The Professionals), there was a high degree of sexual tension between married-with-kids Stevens and the young and ambitious Windermere, but in the last couple of books, that’s really been tamped down. It’s barely mentioned in the new book; we’ll see if it comes up again down the road. The series hardly needs the will-they-or-won’t-they element to provide suspense.
In Watcher, a classmate of Stevens’ teenage daughter commits suicide, and what looks like the straightforward aftermath of bullying turns out to be much more complex. The boy was involved in the underground world of online suicide message boards, and once the agents start investigating, it turns out several kids were being egged on by another participant, who instructed them precisely how to kill themselves (down to the exact type of rope for hanging) and to do it in front of a webcam. There’s a cadre of sickos eager to pay big money in order to watch people die onscreen.
Whether or not urging somebody to commit suicide is actually a crime is up for debate, but when it turns out that a couple of teens appear to be in imminent danger, Windermere and Stevens spring into action, jetting across the country to try to find the message-board baddie (who has, of course, carefully concealed his identity and location). And as they say, “this time, it’s personal”: not just because Stevens’ daughter knew one of the victims, but because it turns out Windermere still feels guilty over an old classmate who committed suicide, something she felt she could have helped prevent if she hadn’t been so worried about what the school’s bullying cool kids thought of her.
As someone who lost a close friend to suicide, I find that this topic can be upsetting for me to read about, and considering how vividly Laukkanen writes about depression, self-doubt and suicidal thoughts, it’s not terribly surprising that in the afterword, he candidly discusses his own struggles. I found The Watcher in the Wall more gut-wrenching than his last book, The Stolen Ones, which dealt with sex trafficking, because the topic does hit so close to home. But like all of Laukkanen’s books, Watcher is a non-stop thrill ride, and if you’re a fan of this genre, this series is one of the best around. No matter what he writes about, I’m all-in for book six.