Imagine for just one moment: You return home from a weekend getaway only to discover that all the locks on your house have been changed, a strange man holding a signed lease is living inside among your belongings, and all of the existing laws favor the “renter.” What would you do? That is just the beginning of the dilemma faced by Kimber Hannon, the protagonist of The Stranger Inside, Laura Benedict’s excellent new stand-alone tale of psychological and domestic suspense.
Just as Kimber is about to get the police involved, this stranger leans in to whisper: “I was there. I saw what you did.” This subtle form of blackmail throws Kimber into a tailspin with nowhere to turn. Is it possible he is telling the truth? With the exposure of her long-buried secret at risk, Kimber decides she will have to handle this situation without the assistance of the police. Even though none of them know the truth either, Kimber amasses a “team” to help get her though this crazy situation. Several exes, her best friend, her boss and co-workers, and her less-than-supportive mother and stepfather all offer aid and advice of various sorts, but ultimately Kimber is going to need to rely on herself to ferret out the truth.
The more she uncovers, the more Kimber begins to understand that all of this leads back to that monumental day from her past: the day her sister died and her father vanished.
Laura Benedict pulls no punches in the way she manages to manipulate the reader. This is a writer unafraid to use all the tools in her arsenal. Throughout the novel, many techniques are used to obfuscate and complicate the narrative. First there is the fact that Kimber obviously knows things the reader is unaware of. But there are moments when the reader learns things that Kimber has not yet discovered. Benedict also nonchalantly drops major revelations into the text unexpectedly, causing the reader to reel back and say “wait…what?…omg.” Flashbacks to Kimber’s youth paint a broader picture, but many of those brush strokes color modern events in new, unexpected ways. And lastly, everywhere Kimber turns there are people working with their own agendas, independent of what is best for Kimber.
As the linchpin of the whole proceeding, Kimber Hannon needs to be a character readers care about. However, Laura Benedict has no interest in crafting a flawless heroine. Kimber has made mistakes, Kimber continues to make poor decisions, and Kimber seems incapable of getting out of her own way – not just in relation to this “stranger living in her home” situation, but in all of her life choices. And yet (or maybe because of that), it is impossible for readers not to bond with Kimber. The desire to see her reach new levels of self-understanding is powerful. People are not without failings and it is how we handle these blemishes that ultimately determines who we are.
The Stranger Inside reads at breakneck speed; perfect for a thrilling distraction from the everyday. Each character is fully-formed and relatable in their own way. Even the house itself grows in importance as the plot develops. Fans of Laura Benedict will find themselves stunned by the new depths to her writing this stand-alone unleashes; those coming to her work fresh will almost certainly be instant fans for life.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was distributed at Bouchercon 2018 by the publisher. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.