Watch Him Die is the kind of thriller that contains so many good plot devices you worry that the author might have emptied their imagination store. It is also prescient: the opening pages describe a young black man in Los Angeles reporting having found a dead body in a house to the police, and his nervousness when they ask what he was doing snooping through the window.
The body turns out to be that of the homeowner, disaffected loner Ethan Garland, and it seems he has died of a straightforward heart attack, but what the police discover in the house leads to a complex unfolding of a life of grim obsession.
A macabre collection of real-life crime memorabilia is discovered in the basement, featuring such well-known killers as John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and Aileen Wuornos. Alongside all the crime scene exhibits, the dead man’s computer is still turned on, and when a message pops up on the screen from somebody called “Matthew” it suggests that Garland was more than just a grisly collector. What’s more, a live video stream from an unknown location, of an incarcerated young man who is barely alive, suggests that Garland may have died without completing his last murder.
The race is on to find and save the man, which involves the police officers communicating with Garland’s correspondent by dark web messaging. Their only bargaining tool is the live stream of the victim, which they now control. They must let Matthew, who they suspect of being a psychopathic killer himself, continue to watch him die, in order to keep up the communication.
Meanwhile, in Glasgow, police are hunting a missing woman, presumed to have come to harm at the hands of her thuggish ex. When her name turns up on Garland’s computer in Los Angeles, along with other recent Glasgow murders, the two police forces have to work in tandem to untangle the network of murder and torture that crosses two continents.
The juxtaposition of the two policing styles provides wry humour – the US team rush to contact “Glasgow PD” only to be informed it is actually called Police Scotland.
The American officers have a wise-cracking swagger: “Don’t tell us it’s Christmas in one breath and say Santa’s dead in another” is a typical exchange, while in Scotland the humour is more low-key. One of the higher-ups is called Campbell Baxter, nickname “Two Soups.”
Glasgow is brilliantly rendered, from the pubs, parks and familiar addresses to the Blue Lagoon chip shop outside Central Station.
Tartan Noir writers have long understood the added thrill to readers of setting their stories in familiar landscapes, but linking Glasgow with the names of some of the most evil humans who have ever lived adds another level of dread. That a person who inexplicably owns the handbag of an infamous murder victim found in Los Angeles in 1947, the Black Dahlia, is linked with an accomplice who it is suspected is bumping people off around the Clyde somehow messes with our self-reassurance that such things could never happen here.
As the pressure mounts on the two police forces to find the final victim, the reader is swept along by their growing sense of desperation. The plot is a complicated one, but Robertson is a master storyteller – sensitive, realistic, terrifying and humorous – and Watch Him Die is never less than gripping.
Watch Him Die, by Craig Robertson, Simon & Schuster, 391pp, £8.99
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