Book review: The Watcher by Ross Armstrong

The Watcher by Ross Armstrong
The Watcher by Ross Armstrong
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Bird-watching turns to people-watching with deadly results in a dark and intriguing Hitchcock-style thriller from actor and now author Ross Armstrong.

A familiar face on both stage and screen, Armstrong’s debut novel is a creepy, atmospheric page-turner, a fascinating Rear Window revamp with a contemporary twist and an unexpectedly endearing social conscience.

Brimming with insight into the anomalies of modern city life, The Watcher is a disturbing, blackly comic story about obsession, isolation, urban decay, inequality and guilt which takes us into deep into the troubled, complex mind of Lily Gullick, a birdwatcher living in a newly built apartment block in north-east London.

Lonely, mentally unstable and influenced by her research into Hitchcock films, twenty-something Lily’s behaviour and thought processes become increasingly erratic and unpredictable as she sets about making her own enquiries into a neighbour’s death.

Lily is bored and lonely. She lives in the brand spanking new Waterside apartments in an up-and-coming area of London but she is in a rut, both mentally and emotionally.

Her husband Aiden is writing a book and taps away on his laptop all day so she goes to the window and watches. A keen twitcher, Lily has found a new pastime… observing the residents of Canada House, the condemned block of council flats opposite, where people are being turned out of their homes to make way for new apartments, yet more victims of ‘the middle class land grab.’

Watching their lives has become an obsession for Lily who finds it ‘thrilling’ to spy on human beings through her binoculars but, increasingly aware of a social divide, she can’t help but feel sorry for the residents, some losing their home of 30 years and being forced to leave the area where they grew up.

And when Jean, one of the elderly residents of Canada House whom Lily has observed and recently befriended, is found dead, the young birdwatcher turned people-watcher becomes convinced she was murdered and starts making her own investigations.

But Lily’s interference is not going unnoticed and as she starts to take risks to get close to the truth, her own life comes under threat. But can Lily really trust everything she sees?

The Watcher is an unsettling and riveting read as Armstrong explores the dichotomy between old London, with its uprooted, marginalised urban working class residents, and the new city ‘gentry’ who are moving into the swanky apartments that have replaced the decaying high-rise blocks.

Moved by the plight of those facing imminent eviction and an uncertain future is Lily who witnesses first-hand through her binoculars the blatant inequalities of the haves and have nots and is determined to assuage her feelings of guilt by tracking down Jean’s killer.

But obsessive, compulsive Lily is the classic unreliable narrator and her testimony, written in the form of a journal to an unknown correspondent, becomes a compelling conundrum as we struggle to decipher her cryptic Hitchcockian allusions and separate fact from fantasy.

As the danger to Lily becomes spine-tinglingly tangible, the pace also ratchets up and readers are propelled into the dramatic and unexpected conclusion.

Exciting, intriguing and socially aware, The Watcher is an enthralling whodunit, packed with surprises and in the best high-suspense tradition of Hitchcock.

(Harlequin, hardback, £12.99)