The first two chapters of Lisa Unger’s riveting new novel, The Stranger Inside, almost seem to belong to different books.
The first, a prologue titled “Last Night,” is deeply creepy, narrated in first person by a nameless voice, intimately addressing a likewise nameless “you.” That narrator enters a stranger’s darkened house and, explaining all the while, methodically commits a murder.
Turn the page and you’re in a different world: the exhausting, exhilarating, warm world of new motherhood. A young woman named Rain Winter is awakened by the coos of her year-old daughter, Lily: “A perfect cherub floated on a cloud next to a white stuffed bear. A little burrito in her loose fleece swaddle.”
Rain adores her little girl, and her relationship with her husband, Greg, is strong despite the stresses that caring for a baby can bring. They agreed, when she became pregnant, that she would leave her job as a producer for a radio news program to be a stay-at-home parent.
Then, Rain made the choice happily. Although she was ambitious and loved the adrenaline charge of her work, she was burned out by covering a brutal murder case — the stabbing deaths of a pregnant woman and her unborn baby — and the acquittal of the woman’s husband. Rain was sure Steve Markham was guilty, and when he was freed she was overwhelmed by a sense of futility. “It was the case that did her in,” Unger writes. “The ugliness of it; she was sick with it, like a flu she couldn’t shake.”
But now, after more than a year at home, Rain is beginning to miss her job and to wonder if it’s time to dip a toe into freelancing. She’s jogging to the park with Lily in her stroller, the picture of cheerful domesticity, when she hears her best friend and former work partner, Gillian Murray, report breaking news: Steve Markham has been found dead.
All Rain’s reporting reflexes kick in. She’s on the phone to Gillian, to a law enforcement source, to her friend Henry, a true-crime blogger and hacker who is not especially dainty about journalistic ethics. Every one of them tells her that Markham’s death is being investigated by federal agents, who are closely guarding any information about it.
One source does give her a handhold: The Markham case might be related to the death of someone known as the Boston Boogeyman, another killer who was not convicted, but then was murdered in the same way he had killed others. And there could be at least one other connected murder: that of a man named Eugene Kresky.
That name doesn’t just trigger Rain’s investigative instincts. It catapults her emotionally into her past, a past she has no desire to relive.
Rain was not always her name. At age 12, she was a free-range suburban kid, spending whole days roaming their safe little neighborhood with her friends Tess and Hank. One day, taking a shortcut through the woods, they met a big man with a big dog.
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What happened next, which Unger reveals slowly and suspensefully, intercutting it with the book’s present-day story, left one child dead and the other two scarred for life. They’re grown now, but Rain’s journalism career and her friend’s profession as a criminal psychologist clearly both grew out of their childhood trauma. And now it seems, more than ever, that they haven’t left that day behind.
As Rain’s story unfolds in unexpected directions, that anonymous voice keeps insinuating itself, becoming more disturbing each time.
This is the 17th novel by Unger, who lives in Pinellas County. Her bestselling psychological thrillers have been published in 26 languages; she was nominated for two Edgar Awards this year by the Mystery Writers of America.
In The Stranger Inside, as in her other novels, Unger builds believable characters whose lives seem ordinary until they are plummeted into some extreme situation that changes how they see the world, and themselves. Often, the aftershocks can last for a lifetime.
Her books are first-rate crime fiction, but the most engrossing questions they pose aren’t really who committed a crime, but why it happened.
For journalist Rain, it’s "One of the burning questions, the one that always interested her most. Who? What? When? Where? All important. But ‘Why?’ In news it didn’t matter so much.
“But in story — Story with a capital S — it was heart and soul.”
The Stranger Inside
By Lisa Unger
Park Row Books, 374 pages, $26.99
Meet the author
Lisa Unger will be in conversation with Tampa Bay Times book editor Colette Bancroft at a book launch for The Stranger Inside at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Admission $5, applicable to book purchase; oxfordexchange.com or (813) 253-0222.
Unger will also be a featured author at the 2019 Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 9 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. tampabay.com/expos/festival-of-reading/