A couple of decades ago an editor at one of the big publishing houses talked with me about the proliferation of “woman-in-jeopardy” plots filling the drug store bookshelves and occasionally making their way onto bestseller lists. She was cranky about the lookalike plots incorporating stalking villains and “plucky” (her word, taken from innumerable reviews) women protagonists who typically started as victims before “turning the table” on the bad guys.
As she put it:
“There’s always this point – I can predict it exactly – where she suddenly ‘takes charge’ and begins to turn it all around . . .”
She wasn’t disparaging the authors or the readers. She was merely commenting on the enduring popularity of the formula pioneered (or at least made famous by) Mary Higgins Clark. Unfortunately, as someone who had to read umpteen books a week, she had gotten bored with the whole idea, even though she knew she could count on it when arguing for which books to acquire.
Years later, the drug store shelves are still full of these books. Yet there are a handful of writers (a handful who I know of, at least), who have taken what appears to be an ounce of inspiration in the formula and created a darker, richer and far more interesting way to tell these types of stories.
Lisa Gardner is at the very top of that list. All of the Gardner books I’ve read have been centered around a woman in danger. The women are always complicated in a “damaged” sort of way. And they’re always darkest in the Detective D.D. Warren series.
In The Neighbor, for example, Sandra Jones is a blond, pretty teacher who’s married to a nice, good-looking guy and who lives to dote on her young daughter. After encountering an intruder in her picture-perfect home she disappears, leaving her husband and daughter behind, and then reveals, in a series of first-chapters, the bizarre but believable connections between her tortured childhood, jaunts into the city for anonymous sex, and the strong possibility that her husband isn’t nice at all. As a narrator, she’s unreliable, untrustworthy, and completely engaging.
In Fear Nothing, the first person chapters of the woman-in-danger are narrated by Dr. Adeline Glen, the daughter of a serial killer and sister of his other child, who followed in his footsteps. Dr. Glen is a woman who studies pain management, and who cannot feel physical pain on her own. She’s a professional therapist who will tell you she’s dedicated her life to helping people. What she probably won’t tell you though, is why she cuts and peels away the skin of a traveling salesman as he drifts off to sleep after a brief, carefully-planned, sexual encounter.
In FIND HER, the woman-in-trouble brings that trouble on herself, masquerading as a would-be victim to hunt men who would do harm to other women. Her name is Flora Dane. She survived over 400 days in captivity, spending most of that time in a coffin-sized box. When she’s rescued she learns everything she can about self-defense, but is soon swept back into a horror show almost as bad as what she’s endured before.
This story has everything you want in a thriller – a high-stakes plot; a brisk pace without one wasted word; and characters who step off the page and hang around in your head. It also has one of my favorite detectives in D.D. Warren, the most likable alpha girl you’re apt to meet if you come into contact with the Boston P.D.
D.D. is as tough as the boys and even smarter than she needs to be on the job. Meaning, in FIND HER, she can look at a male bad-guy victim who’s been burned alive in a chemical fire (believe me, he had it coming) with nothing more than a grimace before expertly leading the investigation of his death. In the process she collaborates with a victim specialist and the FBI without the over-used who’s-on-who’s-turf? plot device, and dedicates every ounce of her ability to finding the missing woman even though she doesn’t really like or trust her. D.D. also lives for a greater reason than her professional calling – to make it home safe at every night to be with her husband and daughter.
In this book, like the others in the series, D.D. leads the effort to solve the crime with a keen curiosity about psychology and an ability to get along well with others while staying true to her get-it-done nature. After reading a lot of Lisa Gardner’s work, including the Acknowledgments sections at the end of her books, I have a special appreciation for how she created a character strong enough to stick with in this long series. She set out out long ago to learn everything she could about crime and the investigative process, a task that was undoubtedly made easier by her respect for the profession (she is, indeed, someone who would be well-liked by the police chiefs and sheriffs I meet in my day job). And she does a wonderful job of tapping what she’s learned to share interesting crime-scene knowledge amid the fast-moving narratives of her work.
In this scene, for example, where D.D. and her team go to the former site of a mental hospital, which is now a park where they’ve found buried bodies in the past, Gardner tells us:
“Laypeople generally gravitated toward the mound when digging for a body. Experienced pros like Boston’s ME department, however, knew better. The mound was formed from all the displaced dirt the killer had excavated from the grave – digging down, dumping shovelfuls of soil to the side. The depression, that was the grave. Where the subject had interred the body, then covered it with enough soil to make it relatively level. Never once considering the effects of putrefaction. That flesh and muscle would eventually decay, slide off the bones, melt into the very ground. That if blowflies found a way to lay eggs on the body before it was interred, this process would happen even faster.”
Gardner’s books are enriched by many crime scene descriptions like this, strengthening her narratives and never slowing them down. They’re all part of the world she’s created around D.D. Warren – and in the characters of her “Quincy” series revolving around FBI profilers. The Next Accident was the first book I read in the Quincy FBI series – and one I still think about as an example of what to strive for in writing thrillers. Gardner is now also finding ways for the characters in these two different series to collaborate with each other. In FIND HER, for example, D.D. has a phone conversation with Agent Kimberly Quincy, who provides some unique insights into the investigation around Flora’s disappearance. The interaction is completely believable, and shows why Agent Quincy is also worth spending time with once you’ve worked your way through D.D.’s adventures.
While I have absolutely no idea how Lisa Gardner turns out two and perhaps three novels every year, I’m glad she’s able to keep up the pace and ensure we’re rarely without the opportunity to be thrilled, and rewarded, by these darkly compelling stories.
# # #