Silvia Villalobos’ Stranger or Friend is in many ways one of those “you can’t go home again” tales in which the protagonist returns to her small home town from the city and finds she no longer belongs. Especially when it comes to solving a crime that reflects on the whole community of Pine Vale, Wyoming.
L.A. Lawyer Zoe Sinclair’s mother has a bad heart and is refusing surgery, opting to die at home rather than in a hospital hooked up to tubes and machines. Zoe figures to change her mind or at least act as caretaker for as long as necessary. A big enough crisis for anyone. But it turns out that’s just the beginning.
Zoe’s best friend is murdered–strangled and stripped naked. The victim, Lori, leaves behind some clues and some behavior-changes that might or might not point to the killer, but no one can put them together. The sheriff has neither the intellectual nor other tools to solve the crime, but he resists any attempt at outside help. This distrust of “foreigners” is pervasive to the residents of Pine Vale and is a central to the action of Stranger or Friend.
Zoe, having spent years building a career in L.A., has suddenly become one of the “other,” as subject to community distrust as the truly foreign itinerant workers the people fear. The deeper Zoe gets involved, the more danger she’s in, the more she feels she can’t trust anyone. Even the kindly family doctor or her lover. Before long, she feels completely alone, estranged from everyone. When a second body turns up, things really get dicey.
I did find that some of the conversation turned “writerly” from time to time–more like an expository summary that doesn’t have the ring of true dialogue, but that is a small flaw compared to the fact that Villalobos has created an atmosphere of small town hostility and suspicion worthy of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” An exciting and suspenseful read. I sure didn’t guess the perp, and I’ll bet you don’t either.