From foggy moors to gritty city streets, the setting of a mystery often tells the reader what to expect in terms of tone. In A Stranger in Town and Black Widows, isolated settings keep the reader off balance, unsure and ill-at-ease, creating an extra layer of tension that dials up the suspense to 11.
The sixth book in Kelley Armstrong’s Rockton series, A Stranger in Town brings the reader to the small Yukon town of Rockton, population 150. This is not a cozy mystery small town—Rockton is completely off the grid and populated entirely by people who need to shed their old lives.
Rockton exists within our world but apart from it in a way that’s almost reminiscent of science fiction. Those looking to start fresh in the town need permission from a mysterious town council, and those who are accepted face threats not only from the wilderness, but also from a nomadic group of almost feral humans known as “hostiles” that lurk outside its borders. All of this could feel too surreal, but Armstrong makes her fictional town seem grounded in reality.
When a badly wounded hiker stumbles upon Rockton while looking for aid. Casey Duncan, the town’s resident detective, manages to save the woman’s life, but her presence only brings more questions. Casey and her husband, Eric Dalton, go looking for the woman’s companions only to find a scene worthy of a horror novel. Her fellow hikers have been killed, literally torn apart, with monstrous brutality. Casey’s careful observations lead her to believe that the murders were staged to look as though the hostiles were responsible.
Adding to her worries, Casey has noticed that fewer residents are being admitted to Rockton, and those that wish to stay beyond their two-year term are being denied an extension. The town council is silent on the matter, and Casey can’t help but feel boxed in by threats from within the town and outside it.
Armstrong’s detailed world building allows the reader to immerse themselves in the narrative, though new readers may want to orient themselves by starting with the first Rockton novel, City of the Lost.
While A Stranger in Town offers up an odd community, Black Widows by Cate Quinn relies on a sense of otherness to create its atmosphere. When Blake Nelson is strangled and his body mutilated, detectives look to the most common perpetrator—the wife. The problem is Blake had three of them. Rachel, Tina and Emily lived with Blake on their family compound in the Utah desert, 40 miles from their nearest neighbor.
Their polygamous marriage was as fraught with tension as it was unconventional. Rachel is the first, most obedient wife, but she has a past so traumatic her mind has blacked some of it out. Tina is a reformed drug-addict and sex worker who met Blake when he preached at her rehab center. She’s all too aware of how dark and cruel the world can be. Emily is the youngest, naive to point of being childlike and existing largely in a fantasy world she’s created for herself. Living in a small house in the middle of a huge desert, the women’s differing personalities and the family’s poverty make for a fraught existence.
Each chapter of this gripping and, at times, graphic psychological thriller is told from the point of view of one of the wives, and the reader is never certain if the narrators can be trusted. As the police poke into their lives, secrets are revealed, suggesting that Blake’s death may be part of something larger and darker than just a domestic conflict. Quinn does a masterful job of creating a world where her characters are isolated—both physically due to their home and socially due to the fact that they are outcasts from their church and community. Polygamy is not sanctioned by the Church of Latter-day Saints, so even Blake’s family has shunned his wives and disapproves of his choice of lifestyle. All of this means that Rachel, Tina and Emily can only rely on each other for support when their world collapses around them. With a wonderfully twisty end, Black Widows is the type of thriller you read in one sitting.