When 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.