Lisa Unger

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.

 

Batman

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.

 

Flora Dane

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.

 

Evan Smoak

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.

 

Dexter Morgan

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.

 

Hayley Stark

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.

Lisa Unger, author of The Stranger Inside, shares her five favorite vigilantes in fiction.

In some respects, the germ for Darkness, My Old Friend took hold a long time ago. Its prequel, Fragile, was loosely based on an event from my own past. In high school, a girl I knew was abducted and murdered. The event—a shocking, horrifying thing—reverberated through the small town where I grew up. And I felt its impact for many years. I wouldn’t say the incident haunted me, but my thoughts returned to that time quite often. Finally, the story, or at least a heavily fictionalized version of it, found its way onto the page when I sat down to write Fragile.

During that process, I met Jones Cooper. When he first showed up in Fragile, he was the husband of my main character Maggie and I didn’t think he had an especially big role to play. As it turned out, he was a critical character. The entire book hinged on his past deeds, and how he’d sought to escape them.

When Fragile was done, I was still thinking about Jones. He and I don’t have that much in common. He is an older guy, in his late 40s. He has retired from his career as a detective, and he isn’t totally sure what he’s going to do next. His marriage is under a tremendous strain as he deals with how his past actions have affected his present, and what they mean for his future. He’s in therapy (very reluctantly). I kept wondering: How is he going to move forward? He has this tremendous darkness within him; how is he going to conquer that? What is he going to do with his life? He can’t just putter around the house! He’s too smart, too interesting.

Usually when I have that many questions and worries about a character, I have no choice but to explore him further on the page. And so began Darkness, My Old Friend, the next chapter of the story.

In a safe, picture-perfect town, the very worst possible thing occurred on a bright and sunny day when all was exactly as it should be.

We had to remain in The Hollows, of course, because Jones is part of that place, and it is part of him. This fictional town from Fragile was at first just a place I came up with because it was similar, if not identical, to the area where I grew up—some hybrid of that spot and an ideal town I had in my head. Near to the city but removed enough to be peaceful and close to nature, The Hollows had a hip, picturesque downtown center, safe streets, a coffee shop, a yoga studio. Again, I didn’t think very much of it at first. But it too evolved and became something more than I expected.

As I did with Jones, I came to sense a great darkness within The Hollows. It has a history, a spirit and a personality. It has wants and needs; it has an agenda. It’s not malicious precisely. Not exactly. I’m not quite sure what The Hollows is up to, to be honest. But I delved a little deeper in Darkness, My Old Friend. And I’m not done with it yet. Or, rather, it’s not done with me.

Shortly after I started writing, a girl by the name of Willow Graves appeared in the narrative. All I knew about her was her misery at living in The Hollows; she hated it. "THE HOLLOWS SUCKS," was what she was writing in her notebook when I first saw her, sitting in her English class, bored to tears. Her mother Bethany, a best-selling novelist, had moved them from New York City after a bitter divorce from Willow’s stepfather. Willow was getting into trouble. So Bethany thought that The Hollows, far from Manhattan and all its temptations, was a safer place for her wild child. Little did she know that trouble finds a girl like Willow anywhere, maybe especially in The Hollows.

I had a lot more in common with Willow than with Jones. In many ways, with her quasi-gothic look, and her rebel’s heart, her penchant for—ahem—storytelling, she reminds me of the girl I was a million years ago. She was out of place, the misfit in a small town, filled with lots of self-imposed angst. She was sure that anyplace was better than The Hollows. I felt for Willow, wished I could tell her to just hang in there. And to try, try, to stay away from that dark place inside. If you follow, I wanted her to know, you can’t always find your way home. But most of us have to learn that lesson that hard way, and Willow was no exception.

It’s the juxtaposition of disparate things that fascinates me: Dark and light, death and life, bad and good. The thin, blurry line between those things keeps me up at night, churning out the pages. And when that line exists within a character, as it does with most of the people who populate Darkness, My Old Friend, I am obsessed with it.

I suspect that my obsession with this idea began more than 25 years ago, when I was a girl, not unlike Willow, living in a place not unlike The Hollows. In a safe, picture-perfect town, the very worst possible thing occurred on a bright and sunny day when all was exactly as it should be. I know Fragile came from there, and Darkness, My Old Friend is certainly an evolution of that story. In a way, maybe all my books began there. Maybe I’m still the girl trying to understand all the many different ways something so horrible could happen to someone so innocent on an ordinary day.

 

Best-selling writer Lisa Unger takes on the dark side of small-town life in Darkness, My Old Friend, her sixth novel. She divides her time between New York City and Florida. Visit her website for more information.

In some respects, the germ for Darkness, My Old Friend took hold a long time ago. Its prequel, Fragile, was loosely based on an event from my own past. In high school, a girl I knew was abducted and murdered. The event—a shocking, horrifying thing—reverberated through the small town where I grew up. And I […]

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