Soap opera shocks plus thriller chills
James Grippando takes a break from Jack Swyteck for a plot-stuffed pastiche that still packs a punch
Lying with Strangers
By James Grippando
HarperCollins. 391 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Maxine Clarke
James Grippando's new novel doesn't feature his series character, Miami-based lawyer Jack Swyteck, but instead introduces a woman doctor who is beautiful, driven, ambitious and stalked by the creepy "Rudy," who has her under surveillance.
After setting this scene, Lying with Strangers immediately switches track, describing our heroine's residency at a clinic, her cool-headed treatment of a dangerously injured baby, and subsequent efficient dispatching of the assailant. Far from being applauded for this feat, however, she and her hospital are threatened with a double lawsuit.
The book races on at breakneck pace, running through so many themes that my head whirled. Eventually, in a little detective work of my own, I realized that the key to the book is in the main character's name: Peyton. Yes, I was reading a pastiche soap opera, and the heroine's name is a homage to the mother of all soaps, Grace Metalious' 1957 classic Peyton Place.
Maybe my theory isn't right, but even so, Lying with Strangers is a whistle-stop tour round many current fashions in the thriller genre. We have Peyton's creepily obsessed stalker (Thomas Harris); her high-tech, high-pressure job at the hospital (Robin Cook); her troubled marriage, with her husband jealous of her success, always away and probably unfaithful (Mary Higgins Clark); the lawsuit (John Grisham). Added to the mix are Peyton's unhappy childhood with a kind but weak father and a cold, controlling mother, who, when Peyton was a young child, mysteriously had a baby who died in the hospital before coming home. Peyton is always reminded that she is a disappointment compared with what this second child could have become.
It is practically impossible to convey all the pertinent events of the novel in a brief review. A surprise birthday party for Peyton causes her to be terrified, culminating in her being run off the road. Later, her presumed assailant is found dead in circumstances that bring suspicion on Peyton. In a moment of weakness during one of her husband's mysterious absences, she goes out for a consoling drink with an ex-boyfriend, now a nurse at the hospital, and spends the night at his place. Circumstances conspire to make it look as if this was not as innocent as Peyton claims. Then the nurse vanishes, and a mysterious person phones Peyton and Kevin (her husband), demanding a ransom. They refuse to pay. The consequences mean that Peyton ends up in court, charged with a crime she did not commit, but painted by the prosecution as a deeply unsympathetic character. The reason (more accurately, one of the reasons) for Kevin's absences is revealed, which becomes yet another plot strand that could come from another book.
I had to keep reading Lying with Strangers once I'd started it, because no sooner is one problem thrown at poor persecuted Peyton, who resiliently and capably deals with it, than another looms up to take its place. The constant cliffhangers, combined with an easy writing style, make the book slip by in no time. But the provision of so many excitements means that no one storyline is very developed, and many ideas peter out.
Although I fell for some red herrings, I did guess the identity of the person behind the malevolence: Still, the ending has real punch. But as with so many crime novels, one feels that the villain could easily have found a far simpler way to achieve certain goals than to construct such a convoluted edifice of deception.
The soap-opera format left me feeling as if I'd eaten a meal of every flavor of ice cream rather than one with a better balance of nutrients. Nothing wrong with ice cream, of course - it is fun, escapist and, unless one eats too much of it too often, harmless. In this case, the heroine is feisty, intelligent, capable and attractive, and if she returns in another volume I might well read it. Nevertheless, I do hope that the flavor next time will be one or two scoops with a sprinkle of chocolate chips, rather than quite so comprehensively tutti frutti.
Maxine Clarke is an editor at the science journal Nature, and blogs at Petrona
From the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday 27 May 2007.