18 Sep Murder Over Zoom
The idea of invisibly witnessing something terrible has always held a certain power. It is what lies behind our love of books like The Girl on the Train and The Woman in the Window. These are stories of ordinary (and, in many cases, flawed) people witnessing something hugely significant, and their lives being changed forever as a result.
The idea certainly has power for me. When planning a second crime novel, I looked around for a concept that fascinated me. Something that made a “whodunnit” into something spine-tingling. In our technology-driven age, perhaps it was inevitable that I happened on the ultimate invisible witness: one who wasn’t even there in person. I realised that someone might be watching through a webcam, without the killer even knowing.
A year ago, while writing the book, the story seemed relevant to our time. These calls were a frequent feature of both my working life and my social life, and technology has led to far more observation than we ever had in the past.
What I hadn’t expected was for the world to change drastically in 2020, and for video calling to become one of the few connections between each of us.
Watching From the Dark
In my novel, Aidan Poole is logging on to his laptop late at night to Skype with his girlfriend, Zoe. She lives in another town, and he is kept apart from her by more than distance. This is a relationship that shouldn’t be happening, for a variety of reasons. But Aidan is unable to keep away.
On this particular night, instead of the standard sight of her face at eleven o’clock, Aidan witnesses an unseen intruder entering Zoe’s flat. He hears the unmistakeable sounds of a struggle off-camera and is certain that something terrible has happened to her. He is proved horribly right when DCI Jonah Sheens’s team find Zoe’s body the next morning.
The killer never even saw Aidan, but every part of his life is about to be upended by what he witnessed. Terrible actions can have terrible consequences, even if the things Aidan saw eventually lead to the killer being caught.
This is Watching From the Dark, which came out just as the coronavirus crisis was beginning to reach the US.
The helpless witness
The strange thing is how much we have all ended up in Aidan’s situation. Covid-19 has separated us from our friends, colleagues and often families. It has cut our access to those important people in our lives to what we witness through a camera lens. And it has drastically reduced our power to help them.
In my personal experience so far, I’ve had three Zoom calls with friends who are really struggling with isolation. I’ve listened to them, talked to them, soothed them while they have cried, and felt profoundly powerless to actually do anything useful. What I want to offer them is a hug, when all I have is words transmitted – sometimes with poor sound quality – over an internet connection. It is frustrating and heart-breaking at once, and I know for certain that this is nothing like the heartbreak families have suffered when their loved ones have died in hospital, with only an iPad held up to let them see their final moments, if they are lucky.
Seeing the hidden
But there is another side to Covid, too. Isolation has given us strange insights into the hidden parts of people’s lives. Colleagues who look perfectly presented at work suddenly seem different when you see their messy house in the background of a call. People you would never have associated with wealth are suddenly revealed to have massive piles. And there is a huge amount of information to be gleaned from everyone’s choice of décor. Whether they have a study. Whether they are harassed by their kids or left alone.
I’ve had many conversations with people who have admitted to being fascinated by these snippets of life. We have been turned into unintentional voyeurs – or perhaps just revealed as the voyeurs we have always been.
And there have been things that have been accidentally witnessed, too. I have three friends whose partners have appeared in a state of undress in the background to a work call, because they had no idea they were using their webcam. I’ve seen people snapping at their children in the background, or clearly playing games on their mobiles when they were supposed to be concentrating. And most of us will probably have seen the poor woman who used the bathroom in the background to a work Zoom – and hopefully been horrified that it’s been shared around.
Through all of it, I have found myself waiting, with fascination and horror, to see if Watching From the Dark really will come true. I’m braced for the first murder caught on Zoom, and I hope, if it happens, that there is a Jonah Sheens on-hand to bring the culprit to in. At least, where there are witnesses, there might be justice.
UPDATE: This is the article I wrote during the toughest lockdowns here in the UK. Barely a week later, I read the following article, confirmation that this was a real thing. The killer was arrested, and is likely to face justice, thanks to the witnesses of the crime. The sad thing is that the calls came too late to save the victim.
Watching From the Dark is out now in harback, paperback, ebook and audiobook formats in the UK. You can find it in Tesco, Asda, Waterstones, Smith’s High Street and all independents, or order from Amazon here:
For US readers, the hardback is out in Barnes and Noble, Walmart and independent bookstores. The paperback will be released in January and can be preordered from amazon.com here: