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Book Review: The Stranger You Seek by Amanda Kyle Williams

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The Stranger You Seek has all the ingredients to fail, or at most become just another “PI seeks serial killer” thriller. Instead, Amanda Kyle Williams has crafted one of the finest debut detective novels of the year.

The language is as sweet as a Georgia Peach and as dark as the under-belly of a thunderhead. The scenery and the sense of place make you want to add “I declare” to your vocabulary and root for The Braves. The plot is brilliant, twisting, full of red herrings but red herrings that are keepers.

The characters, both main and secondary, are so well drawn you’ll want to add them to your Christmas card list. The pacing of the story is perfect and though the details are many they never slow the story. Ms.Williams has taken some of the devices that are cliché to the detective genre and made them read like this is the first time they have ever been used. They are fresh, original and the author has claimed them for her own masterpiece. Beautiful in conception, execution and craftsmanship. Amanda Kyle Williams has arrived on the scene with all the subtlety of Sherman’s ride through Georgia.

Keye Street is an ex-FBI Agent, ex-rising star psychological profiler, ex-wife and ex-alcoholic. She is also an extraordinary heroine and one of the most welcome detectives to hit crime fiction in a good long while. I’ll let Keye introduce herself, since I couldn’t possibly do it better:

“My name is Keye Street. First name from my Asian grandfather; my adoptive parents awarded me the second. By trade I am a detective, private, that is, a process server and bail recovery agent. In life I am a dry alcoholic, a passionate believer in Krystal cheeseburgers and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and a former behavioral analyst for the FBI. How I ended up here in the South, where I have the distinction of looking like what they still call a damn foreigner in most parts of Georgia and sounding like a hick in everywhere else in the world, is a mystery…”

Amanda Kyle Williams gives us a strong female lead who is at once familiar yet original. Smart, sassy, sexy, strong yet scarred and vulnerable. There is something of the hardboiled detective in Keye, she has her own sense of right and wrong — i.e. her employee smokes pot all day long — but she ignores it, yet she comes down hard on a wife beater. She’s also not afraid of a fight, although she is not a big woman and there is nothing of the “Angelina Jolie super hero type” about her. She’s apt to get knocked on her butt, as use a judo throw, yet she sticks with it and uses her experience and brains to best bigger bad guys.

The antagonist is just as original and all too realistic. Early on, the bad guy, quickly dubbed “the Wishbone Killer,” posts an email to Keye and her friend, Lt. Aaron Rauser:

<i>The papers have called me a monster. You’ve either concluded that I am a braggart as well as a sadist or that I have a deep and driving need to be caught and punished. And you must certainly be wondering if I am, in fact, the stranger you seek. Shall I convince you?</i> 

The story opens on the murder of a single mother who has apparently welcomed the killer into her home. Wishbone sadistically and methodically murders her and leaves her with her legs spread, face down – hence the appellation, Wishbone. The victim is left on display for her young son to find her. Lt. Rauser is in charge of the crime scene, and through the modern magic of the computer, the M.O. of Wishbone quickly pops up in an FBI data base. Wishbone has done this before, starting with a similar murder 16 years earlier. Now the murders are occurring more frequently.

Lt. Rauser pulls Keye into the investigation, calling on her expertise in psychological profiling. Keye, newly sober, is reluctant, as her empathy for murder victims was part of the reason for her addiction. But she resists futilely as that same empathy, and sympathy for the child, force her into the investigation. When another murder occurs quickly, Keye surmises that the Wishbone is ramping up in the need to kill. Then when he kills a man in the same fashion and with the same sexual overtones, Keye and the Atlanta PD are baffled because there is seemingly no pattern to the victims’ type, as is usually the case with serial killers.

As the story progresses, Ms. Williams brings Atlanta to life, revealing its beauty, its history and even it’s dark side and its familiarity with famous real life serial killers. Atlanta is so fleshed out it becomes a secondary character. She also makes what could have been stock characters live and breathe. You come to know Wishbone as an arrogant, taunting, evil, intelligent person, but also charming,thoughtful, and even get glimpses of what prompts the urge to kill, without really knowing who Wishbone is. Wishbone is a thoroughly modern “bad guy” using a Blog to document dark fantasies and taunting the police via email and manipulating the media. Wishbone is a serial killer, but totally original and brought to life in a way you don’t find often in fiction.

Keye comes to life as a southern women with a love of all the good things of Southern life; a love of food, a neighborliness and down-home sensibility. She is also a modern woman with deep questions about her failed career, her struggle with alcoholism, her sex drive and her ne’er-do-well ex-husband and dysfunctional family. Her parents are typical Southern, but they adopted Keye, who is Oriental, and a son who is black and gay. Additionally Keye, while pursuing Wishbone, also deals with what could have been the mundane tasks of taking care of business. She serves warrants, arrests bail jumpers, worries about finances, deals with corporate clients, gets shot at, and reveals her office staff and friends. These characters are so fleshed out you’ll laugh with them and want to be invited to their barbeques.

When Wishbone discovers Keye at one of the crime scenes, Wishbone manages to announce this to the media and also expose Keye’s past, her dismissal in disgrace from the FBI, her battles with alcohol, the personal lives of her employees, embarrassing Lt. Rauser and the Atlanta PD. The mayor and police chief dismiss Keye from the case and bring in her ex-boss and one time FBI star profiler turned talking head for the TV stations and national media. The latter individual at once goes to extremes to belittle Keye, and uses her insight to his advantage. But Keye still has questions that nag at her and she decides to work behind the scenes to try and learn more about the killer.

The subplots and seeming dead ends are so important to the story, and don’t so much come off as devices as they flesh out Keye and the rest of the story perfectly. And the “reveal” will have readers slapping their foreheads: all the clues were there but are such a surprise you’ll find yourself rereading parts of the book trying to figure out just why you didn’t see it coming. The Stranger You Seek should ride the bestsellers lists for a good long while and Keye Street may become the most talked about character in fiction.

Amanda Kyle Williams has previously contributed short stories to news papers, worked as a process server, owned a pet sitting and dog walking business, worked in factories, as a property manager, a commercial embroiderer, and at various other jobs to put groceries on the table. Fortunately, for readers everywhere, she has found her niche as a brilliant new voice in the world of fiction and given us one of the best characters you could ever hope to meet in Keye Street.

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About The Dirty Lowdown

I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.
  • bonnie lou

    I was so amazed with the stranger you seek. enjoyed the dynamics ,intensity of the story and just plain loved the read. can not wait fir the next one.congratulations