In The Spotlight: Meg Gardiner’s China Lake

SpotlightHello, All,

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


Filed under China Lake, Meg Gardiner

27 responses to “In The Spotlight: Meg Gardiner’s China Lake

  1. İyi Akşamlar &
    Good Evening &
    Guten Tug &
    Bonjour &
    Buongiorno &
    ¡buenos días

  2. This does sound like a unique sort of thriller Margot. An unusual group to feature in this type of novel and the more difficult of endings to leave all readers satisfied. Thank you for sharing with us.

    • It isn’t a really easy, ‘neat’ ending, Cleo, that’s quite true. And I do give Gardiner credit for addressing this sort of context, group, and so on. It’s certainly not a typical thriller, if there is such a thing.

  3. Although I had forgotten about this book set in Santa Barbara, I must have known about it because I remember reading about a book set in China Lake. I guess i will have to try this one, just to see how well she does Santa Barbara. I see that the second one is titled MISSION CANYON, which is the area we lived in the first six years after we moved to the Santa Barbara area.

    • I’ll be really interested, Tracy, in what you think of Gardiner’s treatment of the setting. It felt authentic to me, if I may say so, but I don’t live there – just been through it. That connection between reader experience and a novel’s setting is fascinating to me. If you do read this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  4. I remember Stephen King giving this a big boost. She is an awfully nice woman.

  5. Sounds interesting, though not really my kind of thing, I think. But I’m excited to see Rennie Airth coming up on your schedule… 🙂

    • I hope you’ll enjoy the post on River of Darkness, FictionFan. I know Airth’s on your ‘happy’ list. As to China Lake, well, no book’s for everyone. No fair blaming me for any increase in your TBR this week. 😉

  6. Col

    Seems like an interesting book, but I’ll pass – too much on the go already. Looking forward to your Ellroy spotlight in a week or two.

  7. Like the sound of this book, Margot. Although, frankly, cults and fanatic groups put me off. It’s interesting that Evan Delaney’s character is an sf author and legal researcher which must run contrary to the beliefs of the militant Christian group.

    • That’s actually a very interesting aspect of this book, Prashant. And I think Gardiner does a credible job of showing how people get caught up in such groups.

  8. I haven’t read this one but it’s definitely one that’s going on my must TBR list. Sounds fascinating. Thanks for the introduction, Margot.

  9. I picked up China Lake some years ago and became an instant fan of Meg’s Evan Delaney books. I just loved this book, with its likeable characters, breathless pace, snappy dialogue and despicable–and all too real–villains.

    Later, I won a contest at her blog, and had a character named for me in the Dirty Secrets Club. (I die a horrible death.)

    • Horrible death aside, how exciting to have had a Meg Gardiner character named for you, Susan! That’s fabulous! And you’re right about the dialogue in this series. It’s got a very effective pace, hasn’t it? You make an interesting point about the villains in China Lake. Part of what makes the story suspenseful is that they are authentic.

  10. I’ve not heard of this book before but it sounds like a really interesting read and different from the usual type of thriller I’ve been reading of late. I’m going to make a note of this title and will definitely add it to my wishlist. Thanks for writing such a great review and bringing it to my attention.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Hayley – I’m very glad you enjoyed this post. China Lake really is a different sort of thriller, with some interesting characters. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  11. This sounds great, I really like the idea of that setup, very compelling and contemporary. Another one for the list!

  12. Was this book adapted to screen? The storyline sounds familiar, and there is an old movie called China Lake. Nonetheless, this sounds like my type of thriller.

    • As far as I know, Sue, this one wasn’t adapted for film. The one you might be thinking of is a different story, but has the same title. At least that’s my understanding (someone, please correct me if I’m wrong). If you do read Gardiner’s work, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  13. In the beginning of your review, you ask if there is a “typical” thriller. These days, I really feel like there is, and that may be due to me following two bloggers who almost always review thrillers exclusively. In fact, lately, these bloggers have reviewed the same books within a few days of each other a couple of times! The synopsis of thrillers today seems to be “perfect person with perfect life suddenly experiences something that suggests nothing is as perfect as it seemed.” I’ve actually taken to not reading these reviews anymore because the notion of perfection is so absurd to me that I know I will never read a book like that. It’s more about the overwhelming privilege of the family that makes me angry than the idea.

    • Thanks, GtL, for your insights on what constitutes a modern thriller. I’d be interested in what others have to say, too, about what you folks see as the ingredients for a thriller. It’s a fascinating topic, and I appreciate your ideas.

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