In Lisa Unger’s superb new thriller The Stranger Inside, a vigilante is on the loose. But this killer only kills the worst of the worst: people who are almost certainly guilty of heinous crimes but got off on technicalities. We asked Unger which other fictional vigilantes fascinate her.
We love to see justice served, don’t we? Americans especially are spoon-fed the notion that evil never triumphs; cheaters never win; dictators will fall; criminals will go to jail. We want to believe it. We need to believe it. But when bad people get away with heinous crimes, are good people entitled to take the law into their own hands? And what is the difference between justice and revenge?
Vigilantism is a tricky enterprise. Most people who step into its house of mirrors are formed in trauma. They are often operating from a place of rage and fear. And in seeking their own brand of justice, they run the risk of becoming the darkness they despise. Confucius said that before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves—one is for yourself.
As a reader and as a writer, I’ve been drawn to the dark and damaged protagonist, the one who you’re not sure is the hero or the villain, the shadow you fear but also love a little bit. Because life is composed only of layers, and people are never just one thing. I want to dive in deep and be surprised by what I find.
Most of my protagonists have issues—mental illness, dysmorphia, addiction, PTSD. And I’ve wrestled with the concept of justice versus revenge in my fiction before. But Dr. Hank Reams in The Stranger Inside takes all of my questions on these topics to a new level. He’s broken; he does awful things. But he believes in his mission. That might be his most redeeming quality, and one Hank shares with some of my other favorite fictional vigilantes.
The Dark Knight turned 80 this year, a testament to our fascination with this type of character. Created by the artist Bob Cane and the writer Bill Finger, the Caped Crusader has had many incarnations in comics, graphic novels, television and film. I am a lifelong fan of this complicated, edgy icon. The ultimate vigilante—a brooding loner, living a double life—Batman was forged in trauma when a young Bruce Wayne watched his parents die. With all the resources at his disposal to make the bad men and women of Gotham pay, he’s the shadow that comes in the night to foil villains and keep innocents safe. Batman was probably my first and greatest vigilante love.
We first meet Lisa Gardner’s Flora Dane in Find Her, the eighth novel in Gardner’s bestselling series featuring detective D.D. Warren. Flora is a college student who was kidnapped during spring break. Miraculously, she survived and must claw her way back to some kind of normal. But, try as you might, sometimes you just can’t let it go. Lisa Gardner is a true master of suspense and carefully reveals all the layers—including Flora’s nightmarish ordeal—that make this fighter what she becomes in the aftermath of unthinkable brutality.
Gregg Hurwitz is one of those rare authors whose writing is as stellar as his plots are breakneck, whose characters are as rich and textured as his tech and action sequences are super cool. In his five-book Orphan X series, Hurwitz introduces us to Evan Smoak. A powerless victim, on the run from bad guys, trapped in a situation that has no escape? Evan Smoak is just a phone call away. The only thing he asks in return is that you “pay it forward” by passing along his card to the next person who needs it. Part of a program that recruited orphans to be assassins, Smoak now uses his skills to deliver his own brand of justice, all while trying to stay ahead of the other orphans who are trying to kill him. Hurwitz digs deep into the nuances of the character, Smoak’s formative years, his memories of the man who raised him and his struggles to have meaningful relationships as an adult.
In Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, readers were introduced to forensic blood splatter analyst Dexter Morgan. Lindsay’s character is fascinating because he’s a true violent sociopath, driven by homicidal urges. He carries with him “The Dark Passenger”—the voice in his head that prods him to kill. But Dexter kills rapists, murderers and other monsters not dissimilar to himself, largely because of the influence of his foster father, decorated cop Harry Morgan. Dad recognized Dexter’s proclivities early on and helped him to channel his impulses in a “positive” direction. Again, it’s the facets of this character that keep us deeply involved. The sociopath doesn’t have emotions as you and I know them, but Dexter has just enough humanity to hook us.
In the 2006 film Hard Candy, 14-year-old Haley Stark lures and captures a pedophile, then proceeds to torture him in his home. This is an edgy, uncomfortable story that delves into the strata of seduction and sadomasochism. Hayley Stark, brilliantly portrayed by Ellen Page, is a manipulative and ruthless captor as she prods and teases the bound Jeff Kohlver (played by Patrick Wilson) into revealing all his dark deeds and desires. The ending is brutal. But there’s a certain satisfaction in feeling like a monster got what he deserved and that there’s a Hayley Stark out there making sure bad men don’t get away with their crimes.
Author photo by Jay Nolan.