Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Thrillers come in all forms. Some, of course, involve espionage, international conspiracies and the like. But not all of them do. For example, Meg Gardiner’s China Lake, the first in her Evan Delaney series, is an Edgar Award-winning thriller. But it’s not a stereotypical thriller (if there is one). Let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.
Evan Delaney is a science fiction author and legal researcher who lives and works in Santa Barbara, California. One day, she attends the funeral of an AIDS activist friend. During the observance, a fanatic religious group called the Remnant makes an appearance, picketing and shouting insults. Delaney soon learns, to her shock, that her former sister-in-law, Tabitha, has joined the group. Tabitha left Delaney’s brother, Brian, and their six-year-old son, Luke, and the breakup was hard on everyone. Now, she’s back, and it’s soon clear that she wants Luke. Brian is in the military, and is sometimes deployed overseas. So, his sister is one of Luke’s legal guardians. This means that she’s involved in Tabitha’s dispute with Brian.
This isn’t just a matter of former spouses going to court over custody, either. Tabitha is backed by the Remnant, and they are willing to take drastic measures to get Luke. It’s not long before Delaney finds herself their target. The Remnant engages in all sorts of harassment to try to get Luke, including vandalism, threats, and more.
Then, Pastor Pete is found dead in Brian Delaney’s home. He’s a very likely suspect in the murder, for several good reasons, and is soon arrested. There’s evidence against him, and the Remnant is only too happy to blame him, and by extension, his sister, for the murder. And the police are interested in her as well.
Delaney soon finds, to her dismay, that the Remnant has plans that go far beyond bringing Luke to live with them. The more she hears about what the members of the Remnant believe, and what they intend, the more danger she sees, and not just for herself and Luke. With the police already suspicious of her, Delaney knows she can’t really count on their support. So, she works with her partner, attorney Jesse Blackburn, to get to the truth, and try to stop the Remnant. The closer they get to the answers, the more dangerous things get. And there are other deaths as the novel unfolds. Still, in the end, we learn who and what lie behind everything. And it turns out that past history plays a big role in what happens.
This is a thriller, and the pacing is consistent with that. There are several unpleasant surprises, narrow escapes, and characters who are not what they seem to be. And there is real danger. Readers who enjoy ‘high octane’ novels will appreciate the twists and turns in the plot. Also consistent with the sort of novel it is, this story is violent in some places. Readers who prefer books with less grit and profanity will notice that. As is the case with some thrillers, there are also some things that some readers may feel stretch credibility. Readers will likely have different opinions about what ‘counts’ as too much of a stretch.
What’s more unsettling than the actual violence in the novel is the way the Remnant operates. This is a far-right, militant Christian group that takes the Christian Bible literally, and is preparing for Armageddon. The members consider themselves soldiers preparing for a war. On the surface, the group appears to do good work. Several members claim that the group rescued them from drugs, gangs, and prostitution. But just beneath the surface is bigotry of all kinds, misogyny, and more. It’s a very dangerous group, and, without spoiling the story, I can say that Delaney isn’t being paranoid in fearing what the group might do.
The histories of some of the characters play roles in the plot, and are important elements in the story. The Delaney siblings are close, although they argue, the way a lot of siblings do. There’s some tension between them over Jesse (he and Brian have a strained relationship), but Brian trusts his sister absolutely. For her part, Evan loves and admires her brother, although she’s not blind to his faults. She is devoted to Luke, and the feeling is mutual.
The story is told from Evan Delaney’s point of view (first person, past tense), so we get to know quite a bit about her. She’s smart and resourceful, with plenty of courage. But readers who are tired of ‘superhero’ protagonists need not fear. She is also vulnerable, and feels the same fear that anyone in danger might experience. She makes mistakes, and sometimes has a habit of being more outspoken than is prudent. And more than once, she relies on help from others; she can’t do it all herself. Still, readers who prefer strong female characters will appreciate Evan Delaney.
The setting for the novel is Santa Barbara and China Lake, which is home to a large US military installation. That location, and Brian Delaney’s profession, mean that readers get a sense of the military life. While the story doesn’t really take place on the base, it plays a role.
This isn’t the sort of story where everything is all right at the end. There are deaths, and the events in the novel mean trauma for several characters. Readers who prefer stories where the ‘bad guys’ are led away in handcuffs will notice that this isn’t that sort of novel. That said, though, we do learn the truth about Pastor Pete’s death, and the other deaths that occur. And there is a feeling that life will go on, and can even be good again.
China Lake is a thriller in which past history and the ambitious plans of a militant religious group combine. It’s set in Central California, in Santa Barbara and China Lake, and features a protagonist who is determined to protect her family and community. But what’s your view? Have you read China Lake? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 27 February/Tuesday, 28 February – River of Darkness – Rennie Airth
Monday, 6 March/Tuesday, 7 March – In the Cold Light of Mourning – Elizabeth J. Duncan.
Monday, 13 March/Tuesday, 14 March – L.A. Confidential – James Ellroy