“The Watcher In The Wall” by Owen Laukkanen is a novel with a very dark subject matter. Known for his powerful and suspenseful stories Laukkanen continues this pattern with his latest book. He has dealt with Internet targeted killings that prey on young veteran’s emotions, human trafficking of teenage girls, and now this, a predator that encourages teenagers to commit suicide on a web-cam.
Early in the book readers understand that a stalker of sorts attempts to find teenagers who are depressed and want to end their life. In fact, the book cover and title play into this scenario. Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere, partners in a joint BCA-FBI violent crimes task force stumble on this person. Stevens’ daughter is devastated when a classmate commits suicide. She asks them to investigate this voice of death and doom. What they find is an online suicide club of unhappy teenagers, presided over by an anonymous presence that seems to be encouraging them. Stevens and Windermere are driven to find this person and prevent him from convincing others to act on their feelings.
Laukkanen based the book on “the real-life case of online predator William Melchert-Dinkel. He is a Minnesota man who has counseled someone online and encouraged them to commit suicide. He is suspected of entering into fake suicide pacts with at least five other victims. All killed themselves at his instruction. At the time I started to write this story the case was working its way through the courts. I was stunned and frustrated with the justice system in that it appeared he would get away with it so I wrote this book about a similar predator. On appeal it was found that he could be retried for actively assisting in a victim’s suicide. Ultimately he was convicted last fall and served just 360 days in jail. Writing this story was therapeutic for me because I was so upset with the sentence of this real-life guy, so I decided to administer my own justice, which was more fitting.”
What makes the story more relatable are the backstories on Windermere and the Internet killer. After being brutally abused by his alcoholic stepfather as a young man he decides to turn the tables on his stepsister, giving her constant emotional abuse. She decides to take her life, and as she hangs herself she notices him watching her. Unfortunately he gets a high from this and decides to set up a website where he can encourage others to die at their own hands as he watches.
Windermere also has dealt with suicide from bullying. As a teenager, she watched as someone she knew was taunted and bullied until they took their life. She did nothing to intervene and this has haunted her. This is probably one of the most potent parts of the book: the description of how so many students laugh along with the bullies, not because they want to be mean to the victim, but to fit in themselves, or out of a desire to not become a target of the bully themselves.
“We need to pay attention to what our friends/students/family members are feeling, whom they are talking to online, and what is bothering them,” the author said. “Parents need to play a role on monitoring what their children do on the Internet. This story was very personal to me. I hope the story brought some awareness. I was always someone who was an outsider. There were times where I felt the whole world is against me. Depression does things to you mentally that could be really paralyzing. While writing this book I was dealing with some mental health issues, mainly depression and suicidal thoughts of my own. When depressed you feel so alone. I channeled this by writing the book. It became a release for me. The mixture of talking to professionals, friends, and family as well as finding the right medication helped me.”
The book is also very informative in that it describes the debate between calling coercion a crime versus freedom of speech. A quote from the story explains, “State law says it’s a felony to coerce or counsel someone into committing suicide,” but there is no federal law because of “his right to free speech to do what he’s doing.” Readers might be shocked to learn that predators like this fictional character may not even be breaking the law.
“The Watcher In The Wall” is an informative mystery. This chilling story is gut wrenching. A word of warning make sure you have the time to read it because you will not want to put it down.