The Perfect Stranger (Simon & Schuster) offers up a perfectly delicious framework for a novel.
How well do you know your best friend? It’s not as odd a question or as obvious an answer as it may seem. We discover hidden truths about ourselves all the time, things we never knew we were capable of doing, so just imagine how little you might know about someone else. And reciprocity is scarcely guaranteed; just because you’ve slurred out your deeply darkened secrets to someone else over that suddenly necessary fifth glass of wine, well, they may have been listening but it doesn’t mean they’ve talking now does it? Or can’t you remember?
If all of the above has made you slightly uncomfortable, perhaps even having reflexively scratched those places in your back where the knives have been stuck, then you’re in just the right mood to really dive into Megan Miranda’s psychological thriller The Perfect Stranger. It may sound paradoxical, but the plot becomes complex enough that I have no fear whatsoever that a summary can possibly give the game away.
Leah Stevens has recently moved to western Pennsylvania from Boston with her old post-college roommate Emmy. Leah has switched careers from journalism to teaching, whereas Emmy just wants to give her own life a jump start. The high school basketball coach, one Davis Cobb, has been stalking Leah, showing up at the door late at night with booze on the breath and lust in his heart. Davis becomes a suspect in the coma-inducing assault on another young woman who resembles Leah, just at the time that Leah realizes that she hasn’t seen her housemate for three days. Complications arise.
What is excellent, even template-worthy, about The Perfect Stranger is the pace of information. With increasing conviction verging on complete catechism, how and when the details of characters are revealed is the quality that separates the forgettable (or memorable in a bad way) page-turner and time-killer from, you know, novels. In this case, the vanished Emmy is kept quite invisible to readers for a long time. The ominous Davis Cobb does not actually make a present day appearance until halfway through the story and Leah’s reasons for leaving journalism are delivered with delicious deviltry. As soon as one thinks one knows all the story … there is more story. A hack would just vomit all the information out in the first 40 pages and fill the rest with car chases or people being clunked over the head with pokers. Megan Miranda is no hack, she is a novelist.
Leah herself is a compelling, sympathetic character even though she is deeply introspective and more than a little bit suspicious of others’ motives. Then again, if you’ve been stalked and your friend from the next bedroom has just left without a trace, I think you might be a wee bit careful and questioning too. And as for Emmy, she reminds me of the title character in that grand old Gene Tierney mystery Laura – the reader is like Dana Andrews’ detective, utterly intrigued by her without her even being there.
At the heart of this splendidly written story though is the question of trust and friendship and how each is implied in the other. Is it ever safe to place your life within the reach of hands of someone else, and if you have, how much will you give in return? That theme is stated in the form of a parlour game question as follows. Emmy is the speaker, after she has postulated that there are only three kinds of relationships:
She’d looked back to the ceiling. ‘Okay, here’s the hypothetical. Take anyone you know. Anyone. Let’s say you know they’ve killed someone. They call you and they confess. Do you either, A, call the police.’ She held up her thumb. ‘B, do nothing.’ Her pointer finger.’Or C, help them bury the body.’ Her third finger went up, and she held them over her face, waiting.
I laughed, realizing that she was serious. ‘That’s it?’
‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘That’s how you know.’
Well? As the old game show used to ask, Who do you trust? ◊
Hubert O’Hearn is a writer/editor born in Canada and currently living in Ireland. The author of four books, as a reviewer he has previously been on the editorial staff of Winnipeg Review, San Francisco Book Review, Le Herald de Paris et Cie and many other publications.