At my very first Bouchercon, back whenever it was held in Indianapolis, I was on a panel with a number of other men and one of the questions from the audience at the end was, “Who do you think are the best crime writers today?” Everyone else demurred from answering, but not me. I piped up with “The women are killing it these days” and I went on to name lots of women writers whom I enjoyed reading, and several people came up to me later to thank me for promoting women writers. It wasn’t something I did consciously or deliberately; I was being honest. Most of the writers I read are women; this has always been true, and probably always will be. There are male writers I read and love–Michael Koryta, Stephen King, Ace Atkins, just to name a few–but for the most part, I enjoy reading work written by women.
And the list of women writers I love to read has only continued to grow since that panel.
I met Laura Benedict in 2018, at the dual Murder in the Magic City/Murder on the Menu event in Alabama–hard to believe it’s been nearly two years–and this year she very graciously sent me a copy of her latest book, The Stranger Inside.
I deeply regret taking so long to get to it.
The outcropping of limestone on which Michelle Hannon struck her head had been a part of the hillside for three thousand years, before there were trees in sight taller than a scrubby pine. It was thicker and a dozen feet broader back then, but storms and earthquakes came, and chinkapin oaks and butternut trees sank deep roots in the hillside, fracturing the big rock. Chunks of it fell away and tumbled into the timid creek at the bottom of the ravine. Now most of those old trees were gone, long ago sacrificed to logging, and the rock was a little wider than Michelle’s hunched and broken body was tall. She lay wedged between it and the earth, as though she was trying to hide in the rock’s shadow. Her thoughts were caught in a blink, the slow closing of one undamaged eye, and she was at the beginning of her life again, soothed by her mother’s drumming heartbeat. She only felt a quiet joy. There was no unmovable rock, no blood streaking her face, no pain seething through her body. Nothing mattered. Nothing at all. But the moment that lasted both a split second and an eternity ended, and with each frantic beat of her heart, the joy ebbed away. Death was coming for her. She could hear it stalking through the leaves carpeting the hillside, eager to whisper its frigid breath in her ear.
Her eyes closed.
Pretty intense opening, right?
The first chapter opens with our main character, Kimber, arriving at her home after a short vacation to find that not only do her keys not work, but there’s a strange man living in her house, claiming she rented the place to him. He maintains this story even after the police arrive–and he won’t let her into her own home. She finally pushes past him–and he falls, which triggers an assault charge and her being taken down to the police station. Slowly but surely almost every aspect of Kimber’s life begins to fall apart–almost as though the mysterious man in her house–who seems to know her, threatens to expose a dark secret from her past he should have no way of knowing about–somehow is managing to mastermind her complete and utter downfall.
This book would most likely be classified as domestic suspense, but it also has roots in Gothic suspense: particularly since a major part of the plot has to deal with Kimber being gaslit; made to doubt herself, made to doubt everything about herself and her life, made to question her own sanity. This was a very key part of the Gothic suspense novels of writers like Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney; heroines who are forced to question whether or not they are in their right minds (the Victoria Holt novel I am sort of re-reading, Kirkland Revels, is perhaps one of the best examples of gaslighting I’ve ever read). Benedict weaves that paranoia beautifully into the classic trope of domestic suspense–the past haunting the present–and winds up giving the reader a page-turning thrill ride that continues to build to its inevitable conclusion.
What is also striking about the book is that Benedict also toys with reader expectations. The unreliable narrator has become almost a trope; as has the unlikable woman character. Readers–particularly of crime fiction–tend to always relate to the main character and root for them to succeed, to solve whatever it is they are being presented with–and we dislike those who stand in their way or are causing them ill. But Kimber is not the kind of woman you would see depicted on the old domestic suspense covers, with the long flowing hair and the long dress and the spooky house with a light on in one of the windows int he far distance. Kimber is real, Kimber is deeply flawed, and Kimber isn’t particularly nice. She can’t stand her boss at the radio station where she works as a sales rep; she’s downright catty about her nosy neighbor; and as we learn more about her and more about her past…yeah, she’s not a nice lady. But she’s incredibly real, and we also understand why she’s done the things she’s done; and in some instances, we never know why. But the tragedies of her childhood, and the bad behavior of her adulthood…would all these terrible things be happening to her if she were, perhaps, a better person?
I highly recommend this novel. I certainly didn’t figure out what was going on–and there are plenty of surprises that just keep on coming as the book progresses. Kimber is not your typical heroine, but her very complexity strengthens and deepens the novel in ways that make it more layered and a stronger read.
I cannot wait to read more Laura Benedict.