“The Stranger You Seek”
Amanda Kyle Williams
Bantam; 304 pages; $25
Unbridled Books; 416 pages; $25.95
By Gina Webb
Meet profiler and Chinese-American Keye Street: “I am a dry alcoholic, a passionate believer in Krystal cheeseburgers and Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a former behavioral analyst for the FBI.”
And Tennessee-born “searcher” Shelby Waters: “I’m the one you call when someone goes missing. Yes, of course you call the cops first, and you should. But once the cop is gone with his report and you’ve got nothing left but worry and waiting for the phone to ring, you call me.”
In two new books that explore the nature of good and evil and all the messy area in between, these are voices we could definitely get used to.
Street is the heroine of Amanda Kyle Williams’ debut thriller, “The Stranger You Seek.” With rehab behind her, a loft on the tenth floor of the Georgian Terrace and a cat named White Trash, she’s slowly rebuilding her life as a PI in Atlanta.
A sober life: “When my phone rang, I was watching blooper reels and using my asparagus instead of a fork to eat mashed potatoes. This is what I do in hotels now instead of cracking open the little bottles in the minibar.”
Though she’s currently on the low end of the food chain — she mostly rounds up bail jumpers these days — Street’s old friend, homicide detective Aaron Rauser, still sees her as one of the FBI’s most accomplished profilers.
When she joins Rauser’s investigation into what looks like serial killings, Street soon finds herself tracking “Wishbone, ” a predator whose guilty pleasures consist of both male and female victims, murders he lovingly recreates on a website called Knifeplay.com.
Street’s first challenge is to understand why the victims so willingly open their doors to this sadistic monster: “If we understand the victim, we understand the killer.”
Strangely enough, not only does the evidence refuse to fit her profile, but the killer seems to be picking off Street’s “enemies” one by one.
Street’s Atlanta is a combination of old and new, exotic and familiar: the area around the old Sears building where the APD still have their offices, her loft on the tenth floor of the Georgian Terrace, the international flavors out Chamblee way. “If you can dream it, if it walks, crawls, slithers, swims, grows on tree or vines, above or underground, somebody on Buford Highway is putting it in a savory sauce…”
Williams scatters a few unlikely and likely suspects into the mix, lets Street warm to her more-than-friends feelings for Rauser, and keeps the suspense taut and the humor snarky, with an ending that will have you slapping your forehead over clues you missed.
Jane Bradley’s debut novel, “You Believers, ” takes a different approach to violent crime in a penetrating, sensitive look at the other victims: the ones left behind when a young woman named Katy Connor goes missing.
Inspired by a real-life abduction in Wilmington, N.C., where two men carjacked a shopper just days before her wedding, Bradley fleshes out the facts with a knack for memorable details and contradictions that elevate the story beyond the predictable: A killer who insists that the truck his victim drove was not sky blue, but “robin’s egg blue.” A bride-to-be we first meet buying frilly underthings not intended for her fiance. A mother who remembers her daughter’s love of nature but how “she was never happy in this world.”
Multiple points of view tell the story of Katy’s disappearance, exploring the impact on her mother, her fiance, her killer and his weak-willed accomplice, a second victim, and Shelby Waters, the “searcher” who keeps looking for Katy long after the police have given up.
Shelby knows just how fast people can disappear. Her sister drove to work one morning and never came back and her body was found months later by two hunters in the north Georgia mountains. Ever since, finding the missing and listening to the “sorrows and fears and speculations” of their family and loved ones has become Shelby’s “calling.”
Her mama called Shelby’s kind of work “putting feet on your prayers.”
As its title suggests, faith is never in short supply in “You Believers.” Most of the characters were raised on heaping Southern helpings of it, only to find their convictions challenged by the horrors they encounter. Each struggles forward to develop a new set of beliefs while time and sorrow erode the old as steadily as bones in the woods.
If some scenes are occasionally overlong and heavy-handed, it’s a minor drawback in Bradley’s style. More often, her potent repetition draws us in, invites us to better understand a world where the waiting can be interminable and there’s plenty of time to contemplate what would have happened if the door had been locked, the car hadn’t stalled out, the killer had a better childhood — or to wonder if the voice urging “keep him talking” belongs to his last victim.