MISTER TENDER’S GIRL by Carter Wilson
CBTB Rating: 4/5
The Verdict: chilling suspense worthy of a weekend binge-read
In the spring of 2014, a truly shocking story broke: two young teens lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times. The motivation behind their gruesome crime? The girls were trying to please a fiction character known as Slender Man - an urban legend born of the internet. This real case shocked the world when it first broke—and it’s inspired the newest book by USA Today bestselling author Carter Wilson, too. MISTER TENDER’S GIRL went on sale earlier this year to rave reviews, and, after meeting the author at this year’s Thrillerfest conference, I knew it was finally time to make space for it on my reading list. In this fictionalization of the Slender Man case, readers go down the rabbit hole with Alice, the survivor of a stabbing at the hands of two of her friends. Alice was intended as a sacrifice to a character known as Mister Tender—a bartender from a series of graphic novels dreamed up by Alice’s own father. Carter Wilson blurs the lines between reality and fiction to gripping effect in MISTER TENDER’S GIRL; readers will find themselves drawn into a world that’s just close enough to our own to be genuinely creepy, and just over the top enough to be totally binge-worthy. Our culture’s obsession with true crime doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon, and if you’re as fascinated by the Slender Man case as I am, Wilson’s reimagining of it belongs on your TBR.
At fourteen, Alice Hill was viciously attacked by two of her classmates and left to die. The teens claim she was a sacrifice for a man called Mister Tender, but that could never be true: Mister Tender doesn't exist. His sinister character is pop-culture fiction, created by Alice's own father in a series of popular graphic novels.
Over a decade later, Alice has changed her name and is trying to heal. But someone is watching her. They know more about Alice than any stranger could: her scars, her fears, and the secrets she keeps locked away. She can try to escape her past, but Mister Tender is never far behind. He will come with a smile that seduces, and a dark whisper in her ear...
Inspired by a true story, this gripping thriller plunges you into a world of haunting memories and unseen threats, leaving you guessing until the harrowing end.
My go-to crime books are those that are grounded in reality—and perhaps my favorite quality of MISTER TENDER’S GIRL is the way it toes the line between reality and fantasy so expertly. Perhaps the most shocking element of this story is that it’s actually not that far removed from fact...no matter how undeniably dark and shocking the case it portrays. Fact is always scarier than fiction to me, and the Slender Man case is undeniably superb fodder for a crime novel. What could be scarier than the idea of two young girls - only twelve years old - luring a friend into the night and trying to offer her up as a sacrifice to an urban legend? While reading MISTER TENDER’S GIRL, I found that I kept slipping into a realm of disbelief: almost a “this is so over-the-top, there’s no way this could have happened” kind of mindset. And each time I did, I had to remind myself that wait, no, this is actually based on something real. Granted, Wilson (naturally) takes artistic liberties in imagining the future of the survivor of this crime—but the reality is, this book is based on a true story, and that’s the scariest thing about it.
In MISTER TENDER’S GIRL, readers follow Alice - the survivor of the story’s central crime. Since that horrible night nearly a decade prior, Alice has changed her name and moved across the ocean—all to escape the dark past she has left behind her. Now the owner of a charming little coffee shop in a small town, Alice’s life seems to be going smoothly. The one reminder of her past? The panic attacks that take hold of her every now and again, reminding her in a very visceral way of the trauma she has endured. But of course, all isn’t meant to stay smooth sailing for our protagonist. Through a series of increasingly sinister turns, it becomes apparent to Alice that someone is watching her, and that this person knows all about the life she left behind… and will do anything to remind her of where she came from.
Alice has all the hallmarks of a character I would absolutely love: she’s a resilient survivor, a dedicated sister to her younger brother, and she even owns a coffee shop. Interestingly, though, my favorite character of this book was the story’s titular villain—Mister Tender himself. Mister Tender is a fictionalized character dreamed up by Alice’s father in a series of graphic novels that developed a cult following. In these graphic novels, Mister Tender is a charismatic and alluring bartender—a man with jet black hair and green eyes that draw you in. Mister Tender’s trademark is that he is an excellent listener. When a patron sits down at his bar, Mister Tender will get them talking - he will learn about their lives, their complaints, their anxieties, their desires. Then Mister Tender will ask them a single question: what would you do to get what you want? Through his irresistible charisma, Mister Tender will plant an idea in the minds of his customers… a means by which they can make their wildest dreams come true. And then, inevitably, they will do it. Mister Tender might be fictional even within the pages of this fictional book, but isn’t this a compelling idea for a villain? In some ways, Mister Tender reminded me of Jurek Walter from Lars Kepler’s brilliant THE SANDMAN—both characters act as a representation of the power of persuasion, and the lengths to which one person can influence another. (Granted, that's where the similarities between the books end - but I love this idea for a villain in both instances.) Mister Tender earns urban legend status in Wilson’s capable hands; he isn’t actually doing any harm himself, and that makes him all the creepier. All Mister Tender really is guilty of is giving people permission to pursue their deepest desires... but the results of the permissions he grants are brutal.
MISTER TENDER’S GIRL will undoubtedly be best appreciated by readers looking for an unusual story of psychological suspense, rather than a classic solve-the-crime novel. More than answering “whodunnit” or even “whydunnit”, MISTER TENDER’S GIRL felt, to me, more about following Alice into the secrets of her past. There is certainly a central question propelling the story forward, but finding that answer isn’t the sole focus of this story. While searching out the truth about who is observing her life, Alice travels back into her own past, and comes face to face with secrets that those closest to her have been keeping hidden away. This can occasionally make the reading experience feel a bit aimless and haphazard, but it’s undeniably captivating, too. On the one hand, I was completely hooked - I read this book in basically 24 hours. On the other hand, I did wish for a bit more focus to the story - I occasionally found it lacking clear direction and forward movement. It may sometimes venture off the rails, but MISTER TENDER’S GIRL is undeniably addictive - perfect for a weekend binge-read. The last note I would make here: this is, it will come as no surprise to readers, quite a dramatic story. If drama - and perhaps even a bit of melodrama - isn’t your style, you’d be best to give this one a pass. If, however, you’re game for some popcorn reading inspired by true (and very disturbing) events, MISTER TENDER’S GIRL belongs on your reading list.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark (February 13, 2018)
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