The Stranger You Know by Andrea Kane
This is my first look at Andrea Kane who comes with quite a reputation. Let’s start with the prose which is elegantly stripped down. Personally, I have no preference on where an author should locate the prose on the dense to minimalist scale. All I’m interested in is the quality of the product as it appears on the page. This is one of the times when a more elliptical approach fits the thriller genre and gives us a fast, page-turning pace. It has moments tending towards melodrama but that’s largely kept under control. So at a craft level, this author proves her worth with a piece of writing that’s technically very proficient.
So now on to The Stranger You Know (Harlequin Mira, 2013) which is the third in the Forensic Instinct series. Please forgive me for getting the characters straight before discussing the nature of the book. In alphabetical order we have Marc Deveraux, ex-Seal, Claire Hedgleigh, a psychic, Hero, a dog, Kyle Hutchinson, current FBI agent, Patrick Lynch, retired FBI agent, Ryan McKay, IT wizard, Casey Woods, a forensic psychologist and leader of the titular Forensic Instinct team, and Yoda, the primitive AI. For the avoidance of doubt, sexually, the pairings are between Casey and Kyle, Claire and Ryan. This author cut her teeth on writing romance and, to some extent, it shows in this thriller. That’s not to say this is any less thrilling. The author subjects a series of women sharing the same physical features to kidnap, rape and murder. This is an interesting choice of plot by a female author. Central to events is a convicted rapist/murderer who sits in jail and manipulates events though a proxy. This felon’s wife shows all the features of abuse and continues to be dominated by her physically absent husband. Taken as a whole, I have the sense the book is portraying women as essentially weak and prone to be stalked and victimised.
Let’s take one step back. One view of the world is that women are consistently humiliated and abused. Patriarchal cultures objectify females, encouraging the view that dominance by males is the norm. Indeed, until laws were changed over the last one-hundred-and-fifty years in Western societies, women were the property of their fathers until married, when the right of custody was handed over to husbands. The right of women to own their own property and to vote are relatively modern developments, not necessarily resulting in realignments in the average man’s view of the women he meets. Fairly recent American research shows about 18% of women are the victims of attempted or full rape at some point during their lives. This is not necessarily reported because the reality of law enforcement tends not to support women who complain of non-consensual sexual activity. Without rape shield laws to protect women who are themselves put on trial when a rape case comes to court, the number of complaints will continue to be low. So when a modern female author writes about a serial rapist and murderer, she’s simply reflecting the risks a significant proportion of women run during their everyday lives. When a female author describes an abused wife whose personality has been beaten into submission by a controlling partner, she’s describing the experience of perhaps a majority of women in relationships.
Back to this book, I always have a problem with books purporting to be “real” yet portraying supernatural powers as effective law enforcement tools. Claire has a psychic hotline to women being raped. She can literally pick up the telephone and direct the police to the area in which they will find the bodies. When she fails to have a vision, say because she’s distracting herself by having sex, she beats herself up. This is not to say she can ever stop the attacks from occurring. Obviously, she only responds to the emotional output as the attack is underway. But she nevertheless feels guilt. Well, regretfully, this entire plot thread leaves me absolutely cold. If an author decides to use characters with supernatural abilities, she’s working with systems of magic that fit into the fantasy milieu. Magic doesn’t fit into a milieu in which we’re supposed to be dealing the the brutal reality that about 18% of American women are at risk of being raped during their lives.
Now treading carefully to avoid spoilers, towards the end of the book, the malevolent males have come to the critical point in their fiendish plan. For this plan to work, it requires one of the women to act in a way that can only be described as completely irrational. So this female author has the relevant female character, dare I say it, act like an irrational woman. Perhaps I’m not the right person to be reviewing this book. As a man, I’m deeply offended that this author should force her characters to act with stereotypical stupidity. Why can an author not portray women as having intelligence and emotional fortitude? It’s so frustrating to reach a pivotal moment in the plot and find the author deciding to create a completely fake tension when the inherent situation was already tense enough. The method adopted to resolve the situation would have worked just as well without the absurd decision. Indeed, it would have allowed a woman to show her strength and lead the charge against the malevolent men and kick their butts — an outcome that could have been inspiring to women everywhere. Having to leave it to the men in the team to rescue the situation is just reinforcing the gender stereotype of male superiority.
So The Stranger You Know is successful in the first half, using the inverted crime device to introduce the jailed psychopath, and leading up to a tense and and interesting situation. Indeed, some of the detail of the plot is excellent. But the book drops off the cliff in the second half and is a tragedy for this time. A book like this would have fitted comfortably into the publication lists of the pre-feminist 1950s, but publishing it today strikes me as sending entirely the wrong message to women readers. Andrea Kane can write great prose but has written a book without any feminist sensibilities to help shape the discourse in a direction more positive for gender equality.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.