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The Watcher Balances a Noir Sensibility With a Sensitive Portrait of a Young Gay Man

The Watcher Balances a Noir Sensibility With a Sensitive Portrait of a Young Gay Man

Author: John Copenhaver

November 4, 2020

It’s not unusual for LGBTQ+ people to play caretaker or fixer roles in their families—and of course, the irony is rich. They often need the extra support as children and young adults but find themselves stepping in to hold the family together or to make their sexuality palatable for their straight family members or, in the case of Shannon Jenkins—one of Jennifer Pashley’s superbly drawn protagonists—to simply keep the mortgage paid and the power on. Pashley is an excellent prose stylist and a compelling storyteller, but the triumph of this novel, The Watcher, is her ability to create beautifully drawn characters, especially a young gay man struggling to support his family and find lasting love.

The Watcher, Pashley’s second novel, begins with a bloody crime scene: Pearl Jenkins, Shannon’s manic and paranoid mother, is missing; something terrible has happened at the decrepit Jenkins homestead. At the scene of the crime, the local police discover a pool of blood and a little girl who no one knew existed, named Birdie. Kateri Fisher, the only female detective in Spring Falls and a new transplant, is assigned to the case. She was recently transferred from Syracuse to upper state New York following her beloved grandmother’s death and her own alcohol-fueled car accident. As we follow her investigation, we also follow Shannon’s story leading up to the crime, in particular his attempt to support his family and navigate his sexuality. His romance with a handsome and wealthy real estate developer, Bear Miller, draws us closer to understanding what happened to his mother and who might’ve done her harm.

Shannon and Kateri are both vulnerable outsiders converging on the truth of a violent incident. Whether it’s Kateri navigating the inevitable sexism of a small-town police department or Shannon learning to allow himself to be loved (even if it’s by the wrong person), Pashley offers nuanced characters with complex emotional lives. Shannon, especially, is heart-breaking. He was terribly burned as a child in a house fire his father—now in prison—confessed to starting, which makes him vulnerable to the seductive wiles of Bear Miller, who dangles comfort, wealth, and beauty in front of him, like something from a J. Crew catalog. Although early on you sense that Bear has an ulterior motive, you understand implicitly why Shannon is so susceptible to seduction. So often, the object of the seduction, particularly in a noir, is presented as morally weak, an easy target because the character lacks backbone and therefore deserving of judgment from the reader. But in Shannon’s case, it’s sadder; he’s taken in because his poverty and tumultuous upbringing have given him no way to analyze and access the situation, which makes him deeply sympathetic. It also makes the reader root for his awakening: You want to reach out and warn him, you want to support him as he’s desperately trying to keep his family glued together.

With all of its dark subject matter, The Watcher isn’t cutting or hard-edged or even particularly fatalistic. Kateri and Shannon are struggling to find themselves against a bleak landscape, but they are handled tenderly and offered a fullness of character I’ve come to enjoy in the best literary crime fiction. Yes, the plot unfolds quickly and in a satisfying matter, but in the end, it’s the characters that surprise and compel.

The Watcher
By Jennifer Pashley
Crooked Lane
Hardcover, 9781643854427, 295 pp.
September 8, 2020
John Copenhaver photo

About: John Copenhaver

John Copenhaver’s historical crime novel, Dodging and Burning, won the 2019 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery Novel and garnered Anthony, Strand Critics, Barry, and Lambda Literary Award nominations. His second novel, The Savage Kind, will be published in October 2021. Copenhaver cohosts on the House of Mystery Radio Show, and is the six-time recipient of Artist Fellowships from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. He grew up in the mountains of southwestern Virginia and currently lives in Richmond, VA, with his husband, artist Jeffery Paul (Herrity).

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