When We Get Together It’s So Much Fun*

OnlineGroupsWhen the Internet first came into popular use, many people saw it as a new way to get information and to do research. Of course, lots of people, myself included, still use it for that purpose. But in the last ten years or so, people have discovered an entirely new use for the Internet: online groups. It used to be that people with a common interest or a common cause had to work to meet one another and share their interest. Now, with just a few keyboard clicks, one can join any number of online groups. It’s dangerously easy.

And crime fiction novels have kept up with this important development in the way we communicate. There are now a number of novels that bring up (some that feature) the way in which we use the Internet to join together. As you’ll see, even when people use online groups to try to do some good, things don’t always work out well.

In Alafair Burke’s 212, for instance, we meet Megan Gunther, a New York Univeristy (NYU) undergraduate student. She’s joined an online community called Campus Juice to keep informed about what’s happening on campus and, if she’s honest, to keep up with the campus gossip. One day, she’s checking the website during class and notices her own name among the postings. Shocked, she checks the group’s site again as soon as she can, and reads what’s been said about her. To her dismay, someone’s posted her class schedule as well as some things about her social life (e.g. when she goes to the gym). The post ends with the disturbing sentence


‘Megan Gunther, someone is watching.’


When Megan is stabbed to death, it’s clear that someone’s been using the interest group to target her. NYPD detectives Ellie Hatcher and J.J. Rogan are assigned to the case and begin their investigation. This turns out to be far more than a case of dangerous stalking when Hatcher finds out that this murder is connected to the murders of two other people: a bodyguard and a real estate agent who ‘moonlights’ as a prostitute.

Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight features a horrible use of online groups: child pornography. In that novel, LAPD cop Harry Bosch investigates the murder of prominent lawyer Howard Elias. He’s murdered just before an important trial in which he was to represent Michael Harris in a high-profile lawsuit against the LAPD. The suit alleges that the police used illegal (to put it mildly) tactics to coerce a confession of rape and murder from Harris. The victim in that case was twelve-year-old Stacey Kincaid, and the more Bosch learns about the investigation into Stacey’s death, the more he sees that there was indeed police misconduct on many levels. That leads him to re-open the Kincaid case as well as continue to look into the Elias murder. And both trails lead to an online interest group. Crime fiction fans will know, too, that this is only one of many crime novels in which online child pornography/child trafficking interest groups play a role.

Cat Connor’s Killerbyte features an online group dedicated to poetry. Called Cobwebs, it’s moderated by FBI agent Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway and Cormac ‘Mac’ Connelly. One night, group member Carter McClaren shows up at Conway’s home, ready to ‘pay her back’ for having banned him from the group. He’s arrested, but soon makes bail. Then, he’s murdered. Attached to the body is an adhesive note with a poem written on it. Conway and Connelly also begin to receive email taunts from the killer. Then, there’s another body found, also with a poem. And another. It’s clear now that someone in the group is a murderer, but this is not a case of a mad serial killer who hates poetry. It’s more complicated than that, and Conway and Connelly have to work to find out who is using their group to kill before they become victims themselves. 

In Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson travel from Scotland to Melbourne with their nine-week-old son Noah. This is Lindsay’s first trip to Australia, but for Robertson, it’s a homecoming. They land safely and begin the long drive from the airport to their final destination. They’re on their way when they have to face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. News of the missing baby soon gets out of course, and the Australian media goes into high gear, publishing every detail of the search for the baby, interviews with people and so on. And the case generates a lot of interest. There are several websites and other online groups set up; some are charitable giving sites and others are discussion sites. At first, there is an outpouring of sympathy for Noah’s parents, but after a short time, questions begin to arise about the case. Little by little, that support turns to suspicion and before long, there are just as many websites set up to vilify, especially, Lindsay as there are in support of the family.

And then there’s Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China. Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police is assigned to ‘rubber stamp’ the case of the death of Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The official police explanation of Zhou’s death is suicide, and that’s logical, considering the victim was on the point of being brought down by an investigation into his unscrupulous activities. Chen’s not completely convinced this is a suicide though, and he begins to ask questions. He finds that Zhou’s activities came out through the online community of ‘netizens’ who join interest groups because for them, it’s the only way to speak out about some of the things going on in China. Chen finds out that the authorities keep very close tabs on what these groups do and what’s posted for obvious reasons. At the same time, they use the information the groups post for their own purposes. It’s among other things an interesting look at the way communication has gone online in the last decades.

Online groups bring together people from all over the world who might not otherwise have the chance to connect. They can be fun, enriching, helpful and supportive. I know I feel that way about the online crime fiction reading and writing communities I’m lucky enough to have joined. On the other hand, you just might want to be careful about the groups you’re thinking about joining… 😉

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to catch up with my group’s postings!



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ziggy Marley’s Family Time.


Filed under Alafair Burke, Cat Connor, Helen Fitzgerald, Michael Connelly, Qiu Xiaolong

26 responses to “When We Get Together It’s So Much Fun*

  1. Some fantastic examples of authors keeping their novels current. As always I need to check out some of these titles , especially 212 to add to my books about stalking collection.

    • Cleo – Thanks for the kind words. I’m sorry that I’m thick-headed enough not to have realised you were doing a ‘stalking’ collection. At the risk of sounding self-serving, and of sticking my nose in where it’s not wanted, here’s a post I did on the topic. I hope it’s a bit helpful for you.

      • This year I have read a few books that are about stalkers starting with The Book of You by Claire Kendal which has led me to pick up a few others that look at this subject. When I was discussing this particular book at work out of a team of 7 (not young) women, 3 of us had been stalked! One poor women ended up having to testify in court. Thank you for the link, I will see what else I can add…

        • Oh, I am so sorry to hear that you were stalked! It’s horrible and frightening. Unfortunately as you found out, it happens all too often. Thanks for mentioning the Kendal; I ought to check that out.

        • My stalker was fairly benign but persistent. It is disturbing to know you are being watched but I was lucky in that it didn’t escalate. The Kendal was one of the best books I’ve read on the subject because it highlights how difficult it is to follow the advice given (and how contradictory some of this is) I would definitely recommend this one.

        • Thanks for the insight, Cleo. And you’re right; it is hard to deal with a stalker. I’m glad that your experience was not a violent one. Frightening enough, though, I’m sure. The Kendal is now on my list.

  2. It’s such a huge development really, the Internet, that it’s surprising how much we’ve already all begun to take it for granted. It’ll be interesting to see how imaginative authors can be with it – some of the real internet crime stories we hear every night will be quite hard to beat, though. It will be quite a challenge to make sure that concentration on the possibilities of the technology don’t lead to a distancing from the humanity of crime…

    • FictionFan – That’s not trivial either. The key to a strong crime novel (at least in my opinion) is the people involved in it. So I agree that it’s both important and tricky to be certain that novels featuring Internet and other technology don’t get too drawn away from the people who make use of new technological developments. You’re right too that there are some real-life Internet crime stories that are really frightening. And as far as taking the Internet for granted? I honestly couldn’t imagine being without it any more. I think we’ve really integrated it into our lives.

  3. This is quite scary, Margot. At one point, I was part of some reading groups and having a very nice time discussing books but they were not as intrusive as groups are nowadays.

    • Neeru – Some online communities really can be intrusive can’t they? And it’s scary to speculate on some of the things that could happen just because one explores an interest in something online.

  4. Margot: In December Dread by Jess Lourey online dating plays an important role and provides one of the best quotes I read this year from amateur sleuth, Mira James:

    I had a theory that one should never shop online for leather pants or men.

    • Bill – That is a priceless quote! Thanks for sharing. Online dating can be a very risky sort of online interaction. Even if one’s physically safe, one never knows exactly who that other person may be.

  5. Margot, perfect timing on this post. I finally can remember the title and author of a book to mention. I’m currently listening to Wendy Corsi Staub’s THE PERFECT STRANGER, the second installment in her cyber predator series. It that deals with a group of bloggers who came together through a cancer survivor site. Several of the bloggers branched off to form their own small group and it appears one of them may be a killer. As the internet and blogging becomes more and more a part of our lives, it’s making its way into the books we read.

    • Mason – Oh, I’ve heard of that book! Thanks so much for mentioning it. I haven’t (yet) read it, so I didn’t want to comment on it here, but I’m so glad you did. It’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind with this post. And yes, the more time we spend connecting in groups via the Internet, the more that phenomenon finds its way into our lives.

  6. I’ve discovered while working on my current wip that all those online groups can be a nightmare for a detective researching a murder victim’s history and friends/acquaintances. It’s a neverending chain of connections, most dead ends.

  7. In Robert Galbraith’s new novel The Silkworm there’s some mention of online presences, though it’s more blogging and comments – but it made me think that there isn’t as much about this area in crime fiction books as you might expect by now. Thanks for updating me on what there is….

    • Moira – That’s quite true, really. There isn’t as much on blogging and online communities as I’d have thought, either. But don’t tell anyone, will you? I might nick that for a Joel Williams story or something…

  8. Col

    You’ve got much better recollection than me, I’ve read the Connelly book mentioned but can’t recall it at all – no time for a re-read, so I’ll have to read something else by him.

  9. Very interesting post, Margot. I have been a part of various online groups for about 10 years now, and for the most part, my experienced have been very positive. I’ve met some really wonderful people who are exactly who they say they are, and a few equally lovely people who are not the person they project online, but are nice all the same. I have been lucky so far, in that I haven’t had too many bad experiences, and the few that have been not nice haven’t spiralled over to real life.
    Strangely, I haven’t yet read any books where ‘virtual life’ spills over onto ‘real life’, though in Silkworm (JKR’s latest) the protagonist did get some interesting titbits by going through the blog comments of one of the people connected with the victim. Apart from that, nobody has used the internet except for purposes of communication and/ or research.
    And child pornography is terrible, isn’t it? That’s one of the reasons why I’ve stopped putting up pictures of my kids. Left to me, I’d love to post lots of pics, but safety first!
    Thanks for a great post, Margot.

    • Natasha – Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I think, sad to say, that you’re being wise not to post pictures of your children. It is really frightening what happens in the online child pornography trade. It’s good to hear that your online group experience has been good. So has mine; it really has. As you say, the people I know online are wonderful folks I’m proud to know. But I think the truth is that is some real online ugliness out there. It can be dangerous. Thanks, too, for mentioning The Silkworm. It amazes me that Rowling/Galbraith has changed genres so successfully.

  10. This is one of the reasons I prefer novels written or set before the internet. Would just as soon leave technology out of it. But current authors who write contemporary novels don’t have a choice. Very interesting.

    • Tracy – Good point! When books are set in the present day, it’s very hard to avoid things like the Internet and online groups because they’ve become so pervasive. But it can add complications to a book, that’s for sure.

  11. I really want to read ‘The Cry’. I’ve heard really good things about the book and it’s on my list to read.

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