Sunday, February 25, 2018

Scary and Compelling Thriller from Carter Wilson, MISTER TENDER'S GIRL

Coupled with the title, the cover on Carter Wilson's fifth book, MISTER TENDER'S GIRL, scared me -- in fact, I found the combo so creepy that I almost skipped reading the book. And that would have been a mistake, because this is one of the smartest, well-twisted, enjoyable thrillers I've read this year.

Wilson's area of the mystery/thriller genre has been labeled "dark domestic thrillers." In MISTER TENDER'S GIRL, the action opens in Manchester, New Hampshire, a gritty, once-industrial city that now hosts a fine crop of tech firms and coffee shops, along with a charmingly diverse population. It's the coffee shop aspect that matters here -- Alice Gray, whose name was originally Alice Hill, owns a coffee shop, and in addition, a  colonial-style, century-old building nearby where she lives: In one building, her low-keysecond-floor apartment where she lives (quirkily, she has no knives in her home), and a third-floor space rented to a quiet tenant she barely knows. Things are going along reasonably well for her. She rarely misses England, where at age 14 she was brutally attacked by a pair of teens like herself ... and her carefully constructed new life lets her mostly hide from her past.

Until, one day, an online dating site she's signed up for, to satisfy a friend who thinks her life looks lonely, gives her a match from a name deep in her past: "Mister Tender," the name of the most outrageous character in a graphic novel series created by her now-dead father. The horrors are about to open up once again.

The creepiest part of the disaster Alice is walking into is the sense, even in Manchester, NH, that she's being watched by some evil linked to her past. Someone online knows about the crime against her, the killing of her father, and even where she was this week -- in fact, it looks like she has multiple stalkers, and no safe place to go or person to be with. Add her very odd mother to that list, and an ex-boyfriend, and people back in England, where the bizarre and cruel changes of her life began.

Wilson's skill places the creepiness smack in the middle of our ordinary modern lives, where our computers are close at hand and our past is increasingly incapable of being erased from the Internet.  For Alice, that means there's no safety possible:
Today is the fourteenth anniversary of my attempted murder. I had almost forgotten, but my phone screen reminds me. October eighteenth. I remember it mostly as it was referred to in court, the solicitors repeatedly saying, "On the night of October 18 ..." I will hold no memorial on this day, carry no special reflections. I'll just try to get through it as I do every other.
So she lets her employees know she'll get to work late, and almost without thought, she follows the one clue she's been given to the stalkers in her life: She enters a site called "" where there's a message board of people obsessed with her life. She wants to type "LEAVE ME ALONE" and she enters the site, without identifying herself yet --
But before I type a single thing, a direct message appears in the inbox of this forum. It's from the master of ceremonies himself, Mr. Interested.

I click to open it. The message only has two words:

Hello, Alice.
This level of threat soon puts Alice on the run, back to the site of the original crime and colliding with her would-be killers. Yet someone, or maybe multiple someones, continues to track her and communicate.

This is a true page-turner, an assembly of threats that feel so close to home that the twists of plot become both chilling and agonizing -- who could be knocking at our own social media doors?

Wilson's finale provides even more twists, and a threat level that's over the top, but mercifully quick to resolve. Whether Alice will survive is always in doubt. Along with whether she'll ever feel safe again.

A must-read for anyone who can handle the suspense of wondering whether their own Internet-connected life might be, shall we say, just a bit risky after all? Best of all, Wilson's created a tie to graphic novel work that's stunning. I'd recommend this one for all thriller readers, with the reassurance that in spite of the terrifying aspects of the cover and what "might" happen, the book's resolution is highly satisfying -- go for it.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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