THE STRANGER INSIDE by Lisa Unger
Park Row; 9/17/19
CBTB Rating: 4.5/5
The Verdict: A gripping, binge-worthy thriller
Love crime novels that put a fresh spin on the serial killer thriller? Looking for a suspense book that reads a bit like an episode of Criminal Minds? I’ve got the book for you. This week, Lisa Unger - a prolific New York Times bestselling author with 17 novels under her belt - has released a harrowing “popcorn read” of a thriller: THE STRANGER INSIDE. This gripping character study takes readers inside the mind of a villain with terrifying authenticity, examining the fallout of a brutal crime through the inner lives of its survivors. Following a young mother living in suburban bliss, but harboring a dark past, THE STRANGER INSIDE doesn’t ask “whodunnit”—instead, it asks “whydunnit,” and the answer will be revealed to the reader bit by tantalizing bit over this book’s 380-odd pages. Lisa Unger is a master at crafting truly palpable tension, and her skill at plotting and suspense-building ensure that readers will be glued to the pages here, even long after the killer’s identity has been revealed. THE STRANGER INSIDE will prove to be a surefire hit for crime fiction readers looking for a page-turning, richly developed thriller with serious entertainment value. My only complaint? That now I’ve got to wait patiently to see what Lisa Unger does next.
Even good people are drawn to do evil things…
Twelve-year-old Rain Winter narrowly escaped an abduction while walking to a friend’s house. Her two best friends, Tess and Hank, were not as lucky. Tess never came home, and Hank was held in captivity before managing to escape. Their abductor was sent to prison but years later was released. Then someone delivered real justice—and killed him in cold blood.
Now Rain is living the perfect suburban life, her dark childhood buried deep. She spends her days as a stay-at-home mom, having put aside her career as a hard-hitting journalist to care for her infant daughter. But when another brutal murderer who escaped justice is found dead, Rain is unexpectedly drawn into the case. Eerie similarities to the murder of her friends’ abductor force Rain to revisit memories she’s worked hard to leave behind. Is there a vigilante at work? Who is the next target? Why can’t Rain just let it go?
Introducing one of the most compelling and original killers in crime fiction today, Lisa Unger takes readers deep inside the minds of both perpetrator and victim, blurring the lines between right and wrong, crime and justice, and showing that sometimes people deserve what comes to them.
What happens to a survivor of a violent crime? What does his or her life look like after media interest in the case has died away? What scars - emotional, psychological, or physical - does that survivor carry with them? Lisa Unger deftly and authentically probes these harrowing questions in her newest release. THE STRANGER INSIDE begins with an innocuous premise: a young mother is leading a perfectly normal - even idyllic - life in suburbia. Rain Winter has a beautiful new baby girl, a devoted husband, and a charming home. She has taken a break from a career in journalism to focus on raising her daughter, and has found contentment and security in her new role. But Rain has a dark secret. When she was a young girl, Rain had a brush with death: she was the victim of an attempted abduction. She escaped with her life, but her best friends weren’t so lucky; one wound up dead, and the other was held prisoner and subjected to unspeakable trauma before managing to escape. When we meet her in adulthood, Rain has buried this part of her personal story deep—but her past is about to be brought to the surface. A vigilante killer appears to be at work, meting out his or her own brand of justice by murdering criminals accused of heinous crimes. When Rain catches wind of this string of brutal crimes, her journalistic instincts are on high alert. Because Rain’s would-be captor was murdered in a similar act of violence, and Rain fears that a serial killer might be at work.
There’s so much to love about THE STRANGER INSIDE, I hardly knew where to begin unpacking this gripping read. But after devouring this book and spending time processing it in the weeks since, the number one quality of Lisa Unger’s newest novel that has stuck with me is its wickedly clever, truly exceptional plotting. THE STRANGER INSIDE is not a “whodunnit”; readers will be surprised to learn that the identity of the vigilante killer central to this story is revealed quite early on. But even after the big reveal, this book is not at all lacking in tension or driving force; in fact, somehow, the story seems to gain tension after the villain is unmasked. So how, then, does Lisa Unger manage to craft such a gripping suspense novel without the question of the killer’s identity driving the plot forward? The secret ingredient lies in Unger’s willingness to dive deep into the innermost secrets and desires of her characters. This suspense novel answers the question of “whodunnit” early on, which frees Unger - and the reader - up to explore even more fascinating territory: the why behind the killer’s brutal crimes, and the why behind the actions of the story’s complex protagonists. As always, I’ll be totally honest: I wasn’t sure how exactly Unger would keep me hooked on this story once I realized I knew who the “bad guy” was practically from the book’s outset. I was wrong to worry. Unger expertly draws the reader into the rich psychological terrain of her characters, unspooling layers of intrigue and suspense in this stellar character study. THE STRANGER INSIDE proves that sometimes the “who” isn’t the most interesting question—especially not when characters’ motivations are as complex, compelling, disturbing, and counterintuitively sympathetic as they are here.
The most gripping crime novels for me as a reader tend to be those in which I find myself invested in the fates of the story’s characters—and if that statement rings true to you, too, you will love Lisa Unger’s rich character development in THE STRANGER INSIDE. Unger has crafted here truly superb suspense protagonists. Rain Winter, our story’s lead, is in many ways a “typical” woman with relatable everyday challenges and triumphs. That she is such an “everywoman” makes it feel all the more authentic, then, when Rain discovers that she has a personal stake in the string of vigilante murders making headlines. And when Rain decides that she and a former colleague must start a true crime podcast to tell the truth about what happened to her in her childhood, and to explore her connection to the present-day killings, readers will be fully invested and wholly along for the ride. Rain is sympathetic, relatable, down to earth, and deeply human; you will find her to be a sincerely believable character from the very first moment you meet her. To make things even better, in Lisa Unger’s world, there are no “secondary characters”; look for THE STRANGER INSIDE to deliver a cast of superbly developed women and men on the periphery of Rain’s life, too. From Rain’s childhood best friend Hank to her husband to the mother of her childhood friend who died on that tragic night many years ago, every single character who appears in this novel does so for a purpose, and reads not like an afterthought but like a whole, carefully-crafted person. I fell head-over-heels for one of Unger’s characters in particular—a complex character who, let’s just say, will make you question just what exactly it means for someone to be a “bad guy” after all. It’s this sort of moral and psychological complexity that makes THE STRANGER INSIDE such a knockout. There are no easy, black-and-white answers here, and this story is all the more unputdownable for its grey areas.
I could rant and rave about so many facets of this story, but at the end of the day, what you most need to know is this: THE STRANGER INSIDE packs huge entertainment value and psychological heft into a suspense novel you’ll fly through in just a couple sittings. Lisa Unger’s characters are vivid, raw, and crafted with serious intention and depth; her plotting is precise and surprising, sustaining white-knuckle tension long after the killer’s early reveal; her story is fresh, inventive, and hugely entertaining. Readers looking for a psychological thriller-meets-character study that takes them inside the mind and motivations of a serial killer will love THE STRANGER INSIDE. Pick this book up for a fall binge-read, and join me in waiting impatiently for whatever wicked work of suspense Lisa Unger schemes up next.
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.
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Park Row; Original edition (September 17, 2019)
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