The first time I read George Orwell’s 1984, in the mid-eighties, I was in high school. In that era, television was the opiate of the people, and the idea of a shadowy dictator watching us through screens, in our own homes, was an abstract concept. Now, thanks to our addiction to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a slew of other platforms, myriad aspects of our private lives are exposed to the public. And our only concern, it seems, is whether anyone is paying attention.
Social media and other forms of computer technology offer many benefits. Some of us rely upon it for our livelihoods. But even for adults who proceed cautiously, what are the risks? Does it make us vulnerable to trolls, criminals, and psychopaths?
These four mystery/thriller novels explore that theme while enthralling us with skillful and suspenseful storytelling.
#1 I See You by Clare Mackintosh
Zoe Walker is a hardworking single mom to two teens, now ensconced in a relationship with her live-in boyfriend. She sees her photo in the classifieds section of a London newspaper. The ad includes a grainy image, a website address, and a phone number. She later learns the photo was lifted from her unused Facebook profile. Who put it in the newspaper and why?
The next day the ad features a photo of a different woman, and another woman the day after that. It seems that someone is stalking them in a bizarre fashion, and Zoe is determined to get to the bottom of it.
Struggling to convince her family and the police to take her seriously, Zoe finds an ally in Kelly Swift. Kelly is an ambitious young detective whose career was derailed by an act of malfeasance. (She punched a child molester she was interrogating.) Through alternating points of view—interspersed with creepy, intriguing snippets from the antagonist’s perspective—we see Zoe and Kelly get closer to the truth.
It’s difficult to find a unique premise in the thriller genre, but Clare Mackintosh—author of one of my all-time favorite novels, I Let You Go—managed that feat in I See You. Zoe and Kelly are beautifully crafted, relatable characters. Their backstories have depth without diverting the focus from the mystery and action. And the novel is well-paced and suspenseful, with plenty of red herrings, making you continually watchful—and leery of everyone in Zoe’s life.
#2 Watching You by Lisa Jewell
Grieving the loss of her mother—and having floundered through her early twenties—Joey Mullen is now a newlywed. She and her husband are temporarily living with her brother in posh, colorful Melville Heights in Bristol, England, a neighborhood she fantasized about as a child. This neighborhood becomes the scene of a brutal murder.
Joey becomes infatuated with her neighbor Tom Fitzwilliam, headmaster of a local school. Credited with transforming the school, Tom is well-respected—but something about his past seems off somehow. Jenna Tripp, a student at Tom’s school—trying to look after her mentally ill mom, whose condition seems to be deteriorating—becomes convinced Tom isn’t the upstanding citizen he appears to be.
Meanwhile, Jenna and Joey don’t realize they’re continually being watched. Tom’s adolescent son, Freddie, has an extraordinary gift for computer technology, and he hones this skill by stalking—and recording—his attractive female neighbors through his bedroom window. (I’m guessing he won’t be putting this on his college applications.)
Through alternating points of view, the author draws us into her characters—who range from wonderfully flawed to menacing—and virtually no one is what they appear to be. The result is a twisty, engrossing novel that continually subverts your expectations about its characters.
#3 The Better Sister by Alafair Burke
Chloe earned a scholarship to an Ivy League school and pursued an illustrious career in journalism. Her troubled older sister, Nicky, married Adam, a bright, ambitious young lawyer, who reaches out to Chloe when Nicky’s life deteriorates, putting their young son, Ethan, at risk.
Fifteen years later, their lives have changed drastically. The sisters are estranged—and Chloe is married to Adam.
To further complicate Chloe’s life, she’s emerged as a prominent feminist writer, which makes her the target of a plethora of vicious internet trolls. One of the facets of society this novel spotlights is the dark, slimy underbelly of social media, including the profoundly creepy world of incels, who frequent chat rooms on Reddit and 4chan, trying to normalize vicious misogyny and rape.
Aside from social media trolls, Chloe’s life seems to have reached an apex. She’s achieved tremendous professional success and is a loving wife and mother. Then a murder upends her life. It also brings Chloe and Nicky back together as they ally to support Ethan. And it gradually becomes clear that Chloe’s life was not what it appeared to be.
In addition to being a skillful storyteller and keen observer of the complexities that lie beneath social trends, this author is an attorney. She brings that expertise to this intertwined mystery and courtroom drama. It’s absorbing and suspenseful—continually toying with your expectations—and the story, the characters, and the timely issues it explores are rife with moral ambiguity.
#4 You by Caroline Kepnes
Joe Goldberg manages a bookstore, and he’s basically an ordinary guy. He’s well-read and eager to discuss his favorite books. He enjoys flirting with a pretty young woman who comes into the store. See? Perfectly normal. And after Guinevere Beck buys a couple of books from him, he googles the name on her credit card —as one does. Soon he’s avidly following her social media accounts. He eventually steals her phone so he can read all her emails. (And did I mention there’s a cage in the basement of the bookstore?)
All this cyberstalking keeps Joe occupied as he bides his time, awaiting his opportunity to become Beck’s boyfriend. Meanwhile, a few obstacles get in the way, including an ex-boyfriend Beck finds hard to forget and an overly possessive friend. But Joe has a plan to handle all that.
Suspenseful, disturbing, and darkly humorous, You has been described as “a terrifying exploration of how vulnerable we all are to stalking and manipulation.”
It also reminded me of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis—but it’s a modern story about privileged millennials rather than a 1980s tale of rich, amoral yuppies. (It also forgoes tedious descriptions of hair-care concoctions and other personal care products.) We travel in the mind of this dark, disturbed protagonist as he rants and ruminates over popular culture and human absurdity. The result is offbeat, creepy, and relentlessly entertaining.
What books (or movies) would you add to this list?