We Spend Hours Now Online*

Online CommunitiesAn excellent post from author and fellow blogger Rebecca Bradley has got me thinking about the new online world in which we live. I’m very fortunate and privileged to have met some of the finest people you could ever want to have in your life through this blog and my other online connections. And it’s been wonderful to meet some of you both face-to-face and in the online crime book club that Rebecca was kind enough to facilitate. It’s all been a great experience, and I truly hope to meet more of you in person as time goes by.

But the thing is, online life isn’t always that safe, enjoyable and rewarding. People aren’t always what their online personas seem to be. And although different social media outlets can suspend accounts and so on, that’s not much protection. And that’s to say nothing of how difficult it can be to verify information you find online. So, online interactions really do involve a leap of faith, as the saying goes. I’ve been most fortunate in mine, but not everyone is. Just a quick look at crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.

In Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s The Calling, Port Dundas, Ontario DI Hazel Micallef and her team investigate a series of bizarre killings, beginning with that of eighty-one-year-old Delia Chandler, who was already terminally ill. There doesn’t seem to be much of a motive for killing her; yet this isn’t a suicide. Still, the evidence shows that she admitted her killer and put up no resistance. So it’s definitely not the sort of murder you find in, say, a home invasion or a more personal killing. Then, there’s another murder. This time, the victim is twenty-nine-year-old Michael Ulmer, who had multiple sclerosis. Bit by bit, the team links these deaths to others that have occurred. And one key to the mystery is a website that they had in common…

Cat Conner’s Killerbyte introduces readers to FBI special agent Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway, an ex-pat New Zealander with a love of poetry. In fact she co-moderates a poetry-themed chat room called Cobwebs. When Conway bans one of the members, Carter McClaren, from the chat room, he shows up at her home to ‘pay her back.’ He’s arrested, but makes bail. Later, he’s murdered and his body found in Conway’s car. With it is a Post-it note on which there’s a poem. Conway and her fellow moderator/lover Cormac ‘Mac’ Connelly are trying to find out who might have killed Carter when there’s another murder, also of a chat room member. Again, a poem is left by the body, and taunting emails are sent to both Conway and Connelly. Now, they have to sift through all of the members and find out which one is the murderer, and why that person is targeting other members.

In Alafair Burke’s 212, we are introduced to Megan Gunther, an undergraduate at New York University (NYU). She’s joined an online community called Campus Juice, in which people post news, upcoming events, and gossip going around campus. One day, she’s looking at the site when she sees, to her dismay, that someone has posted her class schedule. What’s more, whoever it is has also posted information about her personal schedule (e.g. when she goes to the gym). The post ends with a cryptic warning:

‘Megan Gunther, someone is watching.’

When Megan is later stabbed, NYPD detectives Ellie Hatcher and J.J. Rogan are assigned to the case and begin the investigation. Soon enough, they discover that this is not just a case of a dangerous stalker who’s used the online community to target one person. Rather, it’s connected to two other murders…

There’s an interesting online community in Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China. In that novel, Shanghai police detective Chen Cao is assigned to a delicate case. Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, has apparently committed suicide. It’s not a complete surprise, since he was under investigation for corruption. In fact, he’d been arrested and was under police guard in a hotel room when he died. But when Chen starts to look at the case, he sees some signs that this might have been murder. It’s going to be difficult to carry on with this investigation, though, because the Party officials to whom Chen is responsible want a simple ‘rubber stamp’ of suicide. As the case moves on, Chen finds out that Zhou’s activities came out through the efforts of a group of ‘netizens’ who posted them online. These people have found that the only successful way to really speak out about China is through online communities where they feel they can get factual information, rather than official government information. They have to be careful, though, because at the same time as the government benefits from the information they find, it also wants to be in control of what they say. So things can get dangerous.

Some online communities are themselves dangerous. The same online camaraderie that people share when they talk about recipes, clothing, cars or sport can also be used for uglier purposes. For instance, in one plot thread of Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight, LAPD detective Harry Bosch re-opens the case of twelve-year-old Stacey Kincaid, who was found raped and murdered. Michael Harris was arrested and convicted in connection with the crime, but he has claimed his confession was, to put it mildly, coerced. If that’s true, reasons Bosch, then someone else murdered Stacey. Bosch’s investigation leads to a web site called Charlotte’s Web Site, which is not a community you’d want taking an interest in your young daughter.

There are also more recent books featuring the phenomenon of online communities. Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? is the story of Yvonne, a new mother who’s just moved from London to Ireland. She turns to an online community called NetMammy for support, and soon finds a group of other mothers who are also dealing with the stresses of new babies. Then, one of those members goes ‘off the grid,’ and Yvonne eventually begins to suspect that something is wrong, especially after a body is discovered…   There’s also Angela Clarke’s Follow Me, which explores the modern phenomenon of social media celebrity and the reality of how anonymous people can really be online. I confess I’ve not (yet) read these two novels. But they both serve as examples of what today’s online communities can be like.

It’s not surprising that more authors are exploring online groups in their crime fiction. They are a part of modern life for a lot of people. And I, for one, am better for the online communities of which I’m a member. But they’re not without danger…

Talking of online… May I suggest you visit Rebecca’s terrific blog. There you’ll find terrific reviews, and you’ll get the chance to enjoy her crime novel Shallow Waters. Thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ken Block’s We Don’t Talk Anymore.


Filed under Alafair Burke, Angela Clarke, Cat Connor, Inger Ash Wolfe, Michael Connelly, Michael Redhill, Qiu Xiaolong, Sinéad Crowley

26 responses to “We Spend Hours Now Online*

  1. I would never have believed how seductive it is.

  2. I just heard of the Sinead Crowley book for the first time recently – two mentions in a week means I should be reading it!

  3. Definitely becoming more and more of a feature in crime novels – I seem to have read a few this year. Alice Clark-Platts’ debut novel ‘Bitter Fruits’ looks at a young girl looking for popularity by posting intimate pictures online, and how this leads to bullying and her eventual murder – a very good look at how a bullying culture can grow up amongst a group online. And Gordon Ferris’ thriller ‘Money Tree’ looks at both the Darknet and at hackers working as group to infiltrate a major bank. It must make life tough for crime writers actually since so much crime now takes place online rather than on the streets, meaning there’s less ‘action’ than there used to be. Good to see so many of them finding innovative ways to use it as a plot point.

  4. Keishon

    Good to see Alafair Burke mentioned along with the others. I’ve enjoyed her Ellie Hatcher series even though I am way behind.

    Interesting topic Margot but nothing to add. I don’t think I’ve read books of this type. I think I avoid them if truth be told.

    • I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the Hatcher series, Keishon. I think she’s a good character. And honestly, I think we all have kinds of books that we find ourselves not reading, but really, avoiding…

  5. Col

    I’ve only read Connelly’s Angels Flight and I can’t remember a thing about it!

  6. Margot: Having just read the fourth Salander / Blomkvist book your post reminded me that Lisbeth is a member of an online hacking group that wreak havoc around the world while occasionally doing good. The book also looks at the sharing of data between intelligence agencies within and out of countries.

    • You are absolutely right, Bill. Lisbeth Salander is a great example of the power of today’s technology. She is a world-class hacker even without being a part of a group, and this group sounds as though it’s quite powerful in its way.

  7. The internet is certainly finding its way into crime fiction – Rebecca’s novel too talks about a gang of paedophiles who share their films and pictures online. I’ve just finished reading Helen Fitzgerald’s latest novel called ‘Viral’, which is about how the video of the wild party antics of a drunk girl goes viral online and the harsh consequences for everybody involved. I was also very taken (and somewhat scared) by the novel Blind Birds by Ursula Poznanski about an online poetry community which turns murderous (since I belong to such a community myself, it was a bit close to home – although I’m happy to report we are mild and pleasant people on the whole).
    More of a YA novel than crime, and one that I haven’t read but have heard lots of good things about, is Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, about 4 teenagers taking on Homeland Security.

    • You’re quite right, Marina Sofia, that online communities are woven into a lot of crime fiction these days. And thank you for mentioning that Rebecca’s Shallow Waters includes this too; I should have and didn’t. I confess I’ve not yet read Vira, although I do like Fitzgerald’s work. It’s exactly the sort of thing that could easily happen in today’s world. And as to Blind Birds, it sounds interesting, too (‘though of course, as you say, most poets are quite pleasant people. The ones I know are.)

  8. Margot, I have only ever witnessed the online world in films and they have usually been portrayed in negative light. I think, the main reason for this is that I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction.

    • It’s interesting, Prashant, the way crime fiction has changed over the years. It seems to reflect the times in which it’s written, I think. Since online life is so much a part of the modern world, it’s not surprising, I suppose, that we see a lot of online life in fiction, too. And yes, some of it is quite negative.

  9. This si a theme that I imagine can only grow and grow in fictiona s in life – I know I worry a lot about what the online experience fo my nieces is likely to be as they get ever nearer to their teenage years …

    • And you’re wise to do so, Sergio. It’s a very different world to the one we grew up in, that’s for sure. And yes, the more important the Internet and online living become, the more we’ll see it in fiction.

  10. Great post Margot and a very interesting subject. If you’re online, nothing is private and many forget that. The next BH that I’m sketching out has an element of on-line sites in the plot and it’s certainly a way people can remain anonymous.

    • Ooh, now I’m intrigued, D.S.! You’re right, too, of course, that anything you put online is out there for anyone to see. I think too many people forget that. I’ll be keen to see what you do with this topic!

  11. I’ve been meaning to read one of Alafair Burke’s novels, as she’s also in MWA and very generous with her time. 212 sounds like the perfect book to start with.

  12. Thanks for linking back to and recommending my blog Margot! I have to admit that the social media world fascinates me. It can be used for so much good but it also has a really sinister side, even when used by people who believe they are the ‘average Jo/e’ because gang mentality can kick in quickly and situations devolve rapidly.

    As for crime novels I do think it’s something that is being explored more and more because of how much a part of our lives it is. I really enjoyed Can Anybody Help Me as well as Angela Clarke’s crime debut, Follow Me, which was the post you linked back to.

    Thank you again Margot x

    • A pleasure, Rebecca 🙂 – Your blog’s fantastic. And those two novels really are moving up on my TBR list, that’s for sure. They certainly reflect your well-taken point about the online world of today…

  13. I often prefer mysteries that are set (or written) in times when computers and the internet were not so prevalent. But it is a fact now, and I really enjoy the community of crime fiction readers and bloggers that I can learn from. I recently read Die with Me by Elena Forbes which featured a person who preyed on vulnerable people via internet relationships.

    • Oh, yes, Tracy! I remember your excellent review of Die With Me. As you say, Internet technology is a fact, and a lot of authors (Forbes is one) explore the consequences of our Internet lives. On the one hand, I’m glad of that, because it does reflect reality. On the other, as you say, it’s nice to read a mystery that takes place before the Internet revolution. In my real life, I am very grateful for the online friendships I’ve formed. The community of bloggers has taught me so much, and it’s great to have supportive people who share your interest, from thousands of miles away sometimes.

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