“The Stranger Inside,” by Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: The Stranger Inside (Mulholland Books, 2019) is a big, grand, intelligent thriller by Laura Benedict that will have readers guessing and gasping as they avidly turn the pages. The phrase “the plot thickens” is an understatement with regards to The Stranger Inside. This is a book that has everything a thriller needs—especially suspense. Yet it offers more than just thrills.

For one thing, Kimber, the anti-hero protagonist, is a complex, compelling character, deeply flawed but capable of great love and bravery, who will captivate readers from the first chapter. Kimber shoulders a burden of guilt over her sister’s death as a teenager, as well as remorse over multiple past mistakes and misbehavior. She both betrays, and is betrayed, in ways that haunt her emotionally even as the betrayals escalate into physical danger.

As Kimber stands to lose everything in her life that matters to her, she fights back with a fierce cornered-animal courage that not only endangers her but puts people she loves at risk. Yet in the midst of her travails, Kimber has the sensitive heart to rescue a small dog, to cherish a friend’s young daughter, and to feel compassion for an angry ex-lover.

Kimber might be the star character, but the intricate, gripping plot is also a star in The Stranger Within. Benedict’s talent is radiantly clear as she weaves backstory and clues into tangled layers of conflict, danger, treacheries, and chaos, thereby ratcheting up the tension with each sentence. Make no mistake: the plotting in The Stranger Within is among the best of contemporary thrillers.

While there’s never any doubt that Kimber’s life is in danger, from whom and why remains a mystery to her (and readers) until the violent climax. And sandwiched between the action and suspense, there are love stories—albeit love gone bad—and family conflicts that are perhaps too painful to repair.

The novel opens with a teenage girl, Michelle, falling to her death among an outcropping of limestone. Years later, her younger sister, Kimber, returns home from a mini-retreat to find the key to her house doesn’t work. Kimber had inherited the house from her late father, a man who abandoned the family soon after Michelle’s death, and who remains an enigma to Kimber.

Initially frustrated when her key won’t open her own door, Kimber soon discovers that a person unknown to her is living in her house, has changed the locks, and professes to have a signed lease from her. The police accept the man’s lease, especially when the noisy next-door neighbor seems to validate his claims.

Not knowing where else to turn, Kimber calls upon Gabriel, her most recent ex-lover who also happens to be a lawyer. Their romantic breakup is recent enough that Kimber hesitates to call him, but she desperately needs help that the police don’t offer. Gabriel rushes to her aid, but nothing convinces the police to evict the stranger in the house—a man called Lance—once he produces the signed lease.

Homeless, at least until a court hearing can be held, Kimber stays with her best friend, Diana, her husband Kyle, and their daughter Hadley. All will soon regret Kimber’s arrival.

Things at Kimber’s job spiral out of control with unfounded accusations, and she finds herself homeless and jobless—but things are only getting worse. While prowling around outside her own home, Kimber discovers the body of her noisy next-door neighbor dead on the stairs to Kimber’s basement. The police write it off as an accident. Kimber senses that Lance, the stranger in her house, killed the woman, but nobody will listen to her accusations. Then someone runs Kyle and Hadley off the road, putting them both in the hospital with serious injuries.

Though no one believes her, Kimber understands it isn’t just her house at risk. Lance, the stranger in her house, appears to be out to destroy her and perhaps kill her after he’s finished dismantling her life and harming her friends. When she breaks into her own home in a desperate move, she discovers Lance has dug holes in the floors, the walls, and the house as if he is looking for something. But what?

Now homeless, jobless, and at risk, Kimber accepts an overture from her long estranged mother and stepfather. But the stepfather only brings more conflict and confusion. The mother-daughter angle is well-played in the book and, though not the dominant plot line, adds an emotional richness to the unfolding tale.

Needing skilled help to investigate the many problems, Kimber seeks out her ex-husband, a sweet and smart foil to the stranger in the house. The ex-husband, still complicatedly caring for Kimber, finds out that Lance has stolen a dead man’s identity. Lance, or whatever his real name is, is layered into a cauldron of hate, betrayal, and revenge which is both past and present, and somehow involves Michelle, the long dead sister.

Who is Lance, really? And what does he have to do with Kimber’s father, who abandoned the family soon after Michelle’s death, but then left his house to Kimber in his will? Kimber might be on the right track toward answering these and other questions, even as she fights for her life, when she discovers a family photo album hidden in Gabriel’s house. Intricate, deadly and often hidden connections begin to snap into place. Increasingly, Kimber realizes she can’t trust anyone—maybe not even herself. She certainly can’t trust her own perceptions of the past, and probably not even those of the here-and-now.

Benedict is a fine writer with an expressive quality that can evoke all senses, giving the reader a feeling of being right there in the center of the action and emotions. Her language can be elegant and scary at the same time; her phrases conjure up clear, stark images that move the plot forward; and her dialogue hits home every time. The lyrical flow of Benedict’s language adds a literary quality to the thriller. For example, Benedict describes the house at the center of the story:

Stepping back, [Kimber] looks up at the familiar rows of green and orange glass squares arranged above the lintel. This is definitely the same door she closed—and locked—behind her when she left four days ago. The same polished mahogany, the same simple Shaker lines that complement the rest of the Craftsman-style bungalow. The same faint scratches inflicted by her next-door neighbor’s tiny dog. A dozen feet away, the cedar porch swing hangs unmoving in the torpid August twilight.

The sensual quality of Benedict’s language is evidenced in a description of Gabriel:

His tight black Renaissance curls are an inch longer than she remembers them being, and he wears a closely trimmed beard and mustache. The sight of his new beard gives her a pang as she recalls him shaving, naked, in the bathroom of his … apartment overlooking the park, the filtered sunlight buttery on his olive skin.

Benedict, no stranger to successful fiction, is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award-nominated author of seven novels of suspense and of numerous short stories. She came of age in Kentucky, attended college there, and lived for years in Virginia. Her Bliss House series of Southern Gothics are set in Virginia. She currently lives in Southern Illinois with her family.

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