Ross Armstrong is a working actor from North London who has appeared on stage and screen, with his most recent outing the new series of ‘Ripper Street’. ‘The Watcher’ is his first novel which is due for release by Harlequin on the 29th December 2016 – just the thing to help you survive the festive period and start your new year.
There is a lot to love about the book; there are small details that Armstrong delicately places within his prose that enables the reader to become one with the language, behaviour and subtle cadences of a bird watcher; but let me first get you up to speed with things. The story centers on the lives of the somewhat ditsy Lily (who is the birdwatcher / ornithologist wannabe) and her husband Aiden (the struggling writer), who both live in a newly built complex in London. Armstrong sets the scene superbly with the luxury apartments going up all around an existing council estate; the rejuvenation of our suburbs has never been so vividly portrayed.
I myself am all too familiar with this issue still facing many families and communities in modern day Britain, much as it did when I was growing up in an rejuvenated part of London; not in the luxury apartment, the other side of the tracks. It was a familiar tale when those living in council flats and estate housing were offered the chance of moving to more adequate living; uplifting their whole lives / community for the promise of a new land but inevitably being settled way outside of their usual comfort zones and some even sent packing up north – but I digress.
Lily’s hobby of bird watching soon turns to watching the local community from the comfort of her flat, watching those who live in the other high-rise apartments opposite. Keeping notes on all their comings and goings, all of their distinguishing features, height, weight, abode etc. After a death in the local community, Lily discovers that her hobby could help identify the killer; whilst also enlisting the help of others she goes from desk worker to espionage extraordinaire. All whilst her husband is entirely oblivious to his wife’s crazy new world!
Each chapter commences with either a countdown – that ramps up the tension, or an observation (bird watching) sheet which helps the reader discover small glimpses into who the following chapter is about. This format helps the reader become more acquainted with the contextual information that surrounds her twitching (bird watching). A nice little touch from Armstrong.
There are some twists and turns along the way and Armstrong brilliantly executes most of these seamlessly. The whole book is written in the first person which I found slightly jarring as I occasionally found it hard to recognise her voice amongst the constant meandering thoughts. But having said this, the style that Armstrong has chosen to use did remind me of the great Bret Easton Ellis and his works of ‘Less than Zero’ and ‘The Informers’, mainly the structuring of his sentences and the tone he evokes throughout the novel.
The book also reminded me of the 1954 film ‘Rear Window’ by Hitchcock, where James Stewart plays L.B (Jeff) Jefferies who is incapacitated and has to remain at home; where he spends his days spying on those who live across the courtyard in the apartments opposite. So is the idea Ross Armstrong comes up with original? It does have some lovely sparks of creative beauty and its easy to tell that Armstrong has talent, it’s just when I finished reading the book there was no sense of wonderment. For me it appeared to be a reimaging of ‘Rear Window’ with subtle deftly added differences.
Armstrong proves that he is an accomplished writer and much of his prose is beautifully written; one piece I loved was the following statement. This piece of dialogue came when birds began flying into the window of her flat, making bloody, feathered stains across the glass.
‘It’s still beautiful though. It’s still a beautiful creature of the air. I look closer at it and to the tiny crack it’s body has made in the glass. I put my fingers to the glass. It only takes the tiniest crack to let the rest of the world in. To ruin everything.’
As said above Armstrong does show undeniable talent at times when journeying into the mind of someone who is loosing grip on their reality whilst also being embroiled in a quest for truth and justice; I just cant wait to see what he does next. He’s popped his cherry with ‘The Watcher’ and I feel that when the time comes for his follow up novel, he’ll have a clearer view with a fresh and dynamic subject. Armstrong’s talent at writing thrilling dialogue and creating suspense is wonderful and often whilst reading before sleep, I did experience several late nights after being drawn in to this page-turner.
For me though I found the format a little too jarring; but as said before, this is my personal preference, many people I’m sure wont find this an issue. One reason for this may have been caused by Armstrong’s characterisation of his main protagonist Lily; with very short sentences throughout which I put down to her characterisation from as a bird watcher, always observing and making notes. However, I occasionally wanted to escape her head for a few sentences at least but alas this joy was never in sight.
I would recommend ‘The Watcher’ to fans of books in the thriller and suspense genre and I am sure they would enjoy the world Armstrong creates. Whilst it may be a familiar storyline replicated in other art forms (literary and film) it’s undeniable that Armstrong is an intelligent writer. A bright start from a debuting novelist whom I shall be keeping an eye out for in the future!
I especially loved the scene in which Lily broke in to an apartment with a hammer – but you will get no spoilers from me, people! Read it.
The Watcher was published by Harlequin (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers) on 29th December 2016
You can purchase a copy of The Watcher from Foyles:
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Review by Ross Jeffery
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