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Romance meets true crime in Alicia Thompson’s latest

“Love in the Time of Serial Killers” is a rom-com with a sinister twist.
Alicia Thompson's new novel is "Love in the Time of Serial Killers."
Alicia Thompson's new novel is "Love in the Time of Serial Killers." [ Alicia Thompson ]
Published Aug. 11

Phoebe Walsh has serial killers on the brain.

As a woman who’s a fan of true crime books, podcasts and documentaries, Phoebe is one of millions — studies show that fans of the popular genre are overwhelmingly female and mostly young.

As a 30-year-old graduate student in literature who’s in the throes of writing her dissertation on true crime books, she’s a rarer bird, analyzing the books she loves for the relationships between their subject matter and their authors.

But that intellectual pursuit has been slowed by more practical matters. As Alicia Thompson’s new novel, “Love in the Time of Serial Killers,” begins, Phoebe has driven from the campus of her university in North Carolina to her childhood home in Florida (in an unnamed town that sounds like it’s in the Tampa Bay area). Her father died six months ago, and she’s there to help her younger brother, Conner, empty the house and ready it for sale.

She’s made the drive straight through, listening to true crime podcasts all the way, a gigantic Victorian writing desk strapped to the top of her Camry. So when she arrives at the house in the middle of the night and a barefoot man walks silently up behind her, she’s so startled she jumps, screams and drops her phone.

She dismisses the stranger’s offer of help, which reminds her of the strategies of the Zodiac Killer and Ted Bundy, and after she threatens to Mace him he disappears. Her mind goes right to imagining her own murder: “This is the exact scenario two post-Evanescence goth podcasters will one day use for their cold open.”

But she manages to get into the house safely and find that her dad had been “hoarder-adjacent.” She’d been estranged from him for years; when he and her mother divorced, Phoebe chose to go with her mom, while Conner, who’s seven years younger than his sister, grew up with their father.

So her homecoming is full of mixed emotions, especially after she discovers her childhood bedroom is just as she left it 15 years before, right down to the DVD of “Heathers” on the dresser. In her memories, her father is a distant and often angry man, and her parents’ divorce (although her mom is happily remarried) is a major reason for Phoebe’s cynical attitude toward romance.

That cynicism gets a workout when Conner shows up bright and early the next morning. In contrast to his sister, he’s relentlessly upbeat and optimistic, and he’s madly in love: “It really was sickening,” Phoebe tells us, “how much he loved his girlfriend.”

Indeed, he confides he’s planning to propose, but swears Phoebe to secrecy until he comes up with some extravagant way to pop the question. Phoebe tries to think of some reason to talk him out of it, but the pair have been together since high school, Shani is as warm and sweet as Conner, and they’re totally happy together.

“Was it because I was jealous?” Phoebe wonders, or because she’s never felt so all-in about a relationship?

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Between digging out her dad’s house and trying to keep up with her academic work, she doesn’t have much time to wonder about that. But she has another thing to wonder about: The barefoot stranger turns out to be her next-door neighbor.

In daylight, Sam Dennings seems like a nice guy. During that first night, he’d unloaded the heavy desk from Phoebe’s car while she slept and put it near the house. When she meets him, he offers condolences on her father’s death. When, at Conner and Shani’s urging, they crash a party at his house, it turns out he’s throwing a Beach Boys-themed celebration for a co-worker’s retirement.

He’s an elementary school music teacher, for heaven’s sake. He’s got deep blue eyes and a banging body. But Phoebe still wonders: “Was he nice, or performing niceness?”

Thompson, who’s a graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of South Florida, has published several YA novels. “Love in the Time of Serial Killers” is a rom-com for grownups, which means the sex scenes are explicit (and in this case well written).

She cleverly flips some of the time-tested tropes of romance in this book, particularly the one about the man who can’t commit. Her humor is breezy, her pacing well-crafted.

Some of the most interesting passages in the book are about Phoebe’s dissertation. She’s focusing on how a writer’s relationship to the crime affects a book — Vincent Bugliosi, who wrote “Helter Skelter,” was the lead prosecutor in the Charles Manson case, while “John Gacy: Defending a Monster” was written by Sam Amirante, the serial killer’s defense attorney. And, of course, Phoebe’s big finish (if she ever gets it written) will be a chapter about the classic that begat all true crime books: “In Cold Blood” and author Truman Capote’s intense relationships with killers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith.

I really wanted to read that dissertation, but that probably tells you more about me than about “Love in the Time of Serial Killers.”

Love in the Time of Serial Killers

By Alicia Thompson

Berkley, 352 pages, $17

Meet the author

Alicia Thompson will be in conversation about “Love in the Time of Serial Killers” with book blogger Carmen Alvarez at 7 p.m. Aug. 16 at Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Free; RSVP at tombolobooks.com/events.

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