Crime Scene: ROSS ARMSTRONG The Watcher. Reviewed by Derek Dryden
The Watcher is a dark psychological thriller and a first-rate debut whodunnit.
This first novel by English actor and writer Ross Armstrong will no doubt appeal to readers who enjoyed The Girl On the Train. Like that book, it features a heroine cut loose from her everyday existence because of one inadvertent observation. But in this case our heroine, Lily Gullick, is a twitcher, or birder, who, with a tilt toward Hitchcock’s Rear Window, observes her neighbours in the adjacent apartment building.
Lily lives with her husband Aiden in a new housing development in North London. The area is being gentrified and existing council flats are being demolished to make way for the new buildings. As is often the way with urban renewal projects, there is a small handful of angry council tenants who refuse to move while the demolition of their building goes on around them.
Lily records her thoughts and actions in a journal which is addressed to an unknown recipient. She precedes each chapter with two significant observations: one is the day’s sighting – initially avian – species, colour size, habitat, etcetera. Then, as the story progresses, the sightings become focussed on the humans around her:
We roll down the blind and leave ourselves the smallest gap at the bottom to look through. We make sure all the lights are off and I walk him through it. You would love this. It’s like being back in the hide, but better. I get my elbows in place on a magazine and look up, playing with the focus dial and looking for a light on the Waterside building. I flash past a couple of darkened ones, probably owned by overseas investors, so many flats are empty here. Then I see it, lit up like a Christmas tree. A couple. At it. Not sex. Just at it. Living. You can see their whole room …
The second chapter heading is a countdown. ‘30 days until it comes’, ‘20 days until it comes’, and so on.
Lily has a mind-numbing market research position which involves calling delegates who have participated in medical conferences and seeking their feedback on the minutiae: ‘How were the seating arrangements?’ for example. But at heart she’s an observer of other people’s lives, and briefly befriends Jean, one of the last residents left in Canada House, the remaining set of council flats. When Jean is murdered, suspicion falls on Lily as one of the last people see her. And like Rachel in The Girl On the Train, Lily becomes an amateur sleuth, obsessing about her neighbours’ behaviour. She develops a spreadsheet, listing every window she can see into, and methodically eliminates the potential suspects. In one window, she is certain she sees a man assaulting a woman, so, befriending a group of homeless young men, she enlists their help to break into his flat, certain he is the killer:
At this point I was very excited. Nervous too. Quaking. But you can be that much more determined when you know what you’re doing is right. Maybe she’s in here right now. Alive or dead. I take a look. Inside the bedroom first. I tread carefully but swiftly. He has two mid-century French bedside tables. I run my hand over one of them as I put the other hand to the sliding wardrobe.
I waver. And gulp. I’m not sure what I will find. Not sure I’m ready to see a body. A face grimacing in pain. Dead or alive. Wrists bound together. Bruises all over the body. I’m not sure I want to see any more.
‘Oi, what are you doing?’
Lily hides information from the police, she obfuscates, and through a selection of her truths and half-truths, we suspect she is becoming unbalanced. But even a crazy person can catch a killer.
Except that it isn’t quite that easy. That countdown ‘until it comes’ eventually reaches zero. And I for one did not see ‘it’ coming at all.
The Watcher is an excellent first novel. It’s a dark, psychological thriller that takes us deep into the obsessive thoughts that lie within Lily. As with the heroines in Gone Girl and The Girl On the Train, it’s as much a story about one woman unravelling as it is a first-rate whodunit.
Ross Armstrong The Watcher HarperCollins 2016 PB 400pp $29.99
Derek Dryden is the founder of Newtown’s iconic bookstore Better Read Than Dead. He is a travel blogger and a sometime bookseller with the Harry Hartog group.
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