An 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.