A Romance Writer's Dark Turn

Lisa Gardner used to write Fabio-esque romance novels. But her new book, The Neighbor, rubs elbows with murderers, sex offenders, and child abusers. What happens when a fairytale spinner gets nasty?

Lisa Gardner published her first book when she was only 21 years old, a romance novel called Walking After Midnight, written under the pseudonym Alicia Scott. Eight years and 12 more romances later, she turned her attention to the world of suspense, to the literary world’s great benefit. And in the decade since then, she’s published 11 mainstream novels, gradually transitioning from romantic suspense to straight thrillers. It’s as an author of these thrillers that she’s really come into her own, building a career based on an increasingly deft series of books. Her latest effort, The Neighbor, is one more in a line of razor-sharp crime stories.

The thriller genre has long been dominated by male writers, but certain intrepid women have begun to stake out territory in the boys’ club.

The thriller genre, especially its darker climes, has long been dominated by male writers, but certain intrepid women, among whom Gardner features prominently, have begun to stake out territory in the boys’ club. Über-bestseller Patricia Cornwell, author of a graphic series of forensics-based books, is probably most responsible for this trend, but other writers like Tess Gerritsen and Karin Slaughter have likewise climbed the bestseller lists with thrillers that don’t skimp on the gore.

The Neighbor follows suit. It begins with an intriguing, if familiar, setup: A beautiful young woman—in this case, 23-year-old Sandra Jones, a schoolteacher with a young daughter—has vanished without a trace, and her husband is acting awfully suspicious. As far as the police are concerned, Jason Jones isn’t behaving the way they think a concerned spouse should. He’s too controlled, too calculated. Evasive, even. And because the husband is always the first suspect when a woman disappears, the cops are eyeing him as their quickest route to case closed.

Despite having attracted the interest of the police, Jason seems like a nice guy and a good dad to their 4-year-old daughter, Ree. But there are a lot of unanswered questions about him, many of which are revealed in a series of flashbacks that portray him as a cold and unaffectionate spouse.

He’s not the only one arousing suspicions. There’s also The Neighbor’s titular character, the handsome young guy who lives down the street. At first glance, Aidan Brewster appears innocuous enough. It’s only as Gardner reveals his history as a convicted sex offender who did time in prison for the statutory rape of a young teenager that the reader begins to get chills every time he appears on the page.

The story of a missing woman and a suspected husband has been around since Hector was a pup. But what makes The Neighbor stand out is the exquisite way in which Gardner slowly spools out the threads of her plot. At the beginning of the story, we know that Sandra Jones is gone, but don’t know where she went or why or who might have been responsible. We don’t know very much of anything.

Gardner sets up plausible suspects for us to wonder about—in addition to the husband and the pervert neighbor, there are at least two others—but there is enough doubt about each of them that we just don’t know. It’s a nice trick, taking an intriguing puzzle and wrapping it up in a fast-paced tale of suspense. Readers get the best of both worlds: the intellectual curiosity of the mystery, and the energizing velocity of the thriller. As a result, The Neighbor both challenges the mind and gets the heart racing. And Gardner does a fine job of holding our interest through the first nine-tenths of the book—it’s only once the story reaches its climax and conclusion that a measure of disappointment sets in. As is often the case with mysteries, the investigation of the crime is more satisfying than the resolution of it. The ending certainly doesn’t spoil what comes before it, but it also doesn’t measure up to the high standard of the rest of the book.

The Neighbor is a hard-edged and gritty story, so much so that it’s hard to imagine such a book coming from a woman who, not so long ago, wrote novels with titles like The One Worth Waiting For and Marrying Mike…Again for an imprint called Silhouette Intimate Moments. In addition to The Neighbor’s sex-offender neighbor, there is suspicion of child abuse, child pornography, and serious exploitation of a minor—along with the more run-of-the-mill murder and mayhem.

Which is why, were there justice in the world, writers like Gardner would neutralize the highbrow literati’s tendency to sneer at romance novels as if they were store-brand paté. There are good books and bad books of every kind, regardless of which label is slapped on them. As Gardner proves with The Neighbor, good writers can come from anywhere, including the world of Fabio paperbacks. You can’t judge a book by its cover—and you can’t judge an author either. Gardner writes about the menace that lurks beneath the surface of her villains with an intensity that would make Ted Bundy blush.

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David J. Montgomery is a critic for The Daily Beast and has written about authors and books for many of the country's largest newspapers.