For most of its length, They’re Watching is great fun. Author Gregg Hurwitz keeps the pace blistering and the twists flying fast and furious. It’s never going to be mistaken for something deeply literary, but it adds the emotional tale of a marriage that has almost fallen apart to the story of a man who discovers that they’re watching (whoever they may be), without making the former story cloying nor the latter development too predictable.
Hurwitz’s hero is Patrick Davis, a screenwriter who’s finally broken through with a script for the film-within-the-book They’re Watching, a kooky government-conspiracy thriller that Hurwitz is smart enough to let the reader know isn’t very good. Unfortunately, an altercation with the film’s star on set ends Patrick’s Hollywood career almost before it begins, and the strain of working on the film causes trouble within his marriage. But all that happens before the book even properly begins, though Hurwitz laces vivid flashbacks to the events throughout the first 50 pages. The book starts with Patrick finding a DVD shoved into his newspaper; it contains surveillance footage of his house, and a later DVD shows the cameraman entering his house and recording him asleep. Who’s sending the DVDs? What do they want? As with the similar movie Caché, that’ll take the bulk of the work to figure out.
The best part of They’re Watching is its first half, when Hurwitz has a lot of fun with the possible motivations of the people taping Patrick. Is it at all possible that they’re altruistic angels of mercy? Or is his wife, Ariana, correct when she says he should stay far, far away from everything they want him to do? This is a thriller, after all, so it’ll eventually feature casual murder, car chases, and explosive violence, but Hurwitz has a lot of fun teasing out the numerous possibilities, and he sends Patrick all across the emotional spectrum.
After that first half, though, some of the fun leaks out of the book as Hurwitz has to provide answers. A book that once seemed as though it might break the mold in some ways changes into a fairly straightforward conspiracy thriller, and the old bugaboo that plagues all conspiracy thrillers turns up again and again: Why wouldn’t the people behind the conspiracy just carry out their ultimate goals in some less expensive, less complicated fashion? The conspiracy does have a concrete goal, but it’s so small-scale that the connection between it and the massive, massive attempts to get Patrick to do certain things at certain times feels laughable.
It doesn’t help that the final solution incorporates pieces of the puzzle that Hurwitz never shows us. The more a conspiracy grows, the more it’s necessary to play fair with the reader. Up until the last 50 pages or so, it’s possible to figure out the ultimate goal of the conspirators in They’re Watching, but when it comes time to pull back the curtain, Hurwitz can’t help but drop in a bunch of characters who have little connection to the narrative so far. Sadly, a book that started with a lot of emotional acuity for its genre falls more and more out of touch with its characters, until it ends in a place that’s more than a little cold.