It used to be all the pulp and hardboiled P.I.s were hard-drinking white men who helped good-looking dames with their pistol, calloused fists, with their wits hidden under a fedora. It seems the new stereotype is a alcoholic haunted by the bad things he or she has seen and done. The new assistant isn’t a pretty little brunette typist or a street-wise mercenary, but rather a good-looking hacker.
The Stranger in the Room is part of that new tradition. Keye Street is an adopted Chinese-American, ex-FBI, recovering alcoholic P.I. with a fashionable hacker sidekick, a handsome Atlanta cop boyfriend, a Very Southern family (including gay African-American adoptive brother), and a strung out, high-strung mess of a cousin. Which makes it sound like Williams had a politically-correct checklist she was working from, but it doesn’t really read that way once she’s introduced everyone.
In fact, even Keye pokes fun at herself for the swirl of diversity surrounding her. It both reflects modern society and slides a little too far into perfect: The mother’s issues and Keye’s confusion over why a woman like her would adopt such outwardly different children feels real. And the like-interests that hold these ordinarily divergent people together counts for a lot. I say that because, even in South Florida, which touts itself as some sort of swirl of colors and cultures, people largely tend to keep to what makes them feel comfortable, at home, and safe. It’s in work groups, and meetings, interest-based gatherings, that you see the spectrum.
But I digress. Which, is apropos in a way, since the whole subplot of this book feels like a digression. And yet, yet!, it was perhaps more interesting and entertaining than the primary stalker-as-maybe-serial-killer plot. Not that there was anything wrong with the stalker plot. It was well done and peppered with all the right red herrings and suspense. It’s just, serial killers are everywhere in fiction. Urns full of chicken feed and cement? That’s not so common. And the old woman they meet along the way could easily be played by Betty White. She’s fantastic even when her entrenched redneckian tendencies make you cringe.
Pros: Keye and her assistant are likeable and her alcoholism reads realistically. The crematorium plot is a good mix of icky and funny. There’s pretty much something for everyone; it’s humorous, suspenseful, diverse and well-plotted.
Cons: Keye’s issues with alcohol, and by extension sweets – which she’s replaced her former addiction with – will make you take a trip to either the liquor store or the donut shop in the same way reading about hamburgers makes you crave a vegan portobello burger. (Just me? Okay, nevermind.)
Bottom line: You may want to start with Williams’ first Keye Street book – so many references made it seem intriguing – but it’s not really necessary. Either way, it’s a fun read. Perfect for Labor Day.