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Stranger in the Lake


Stranger in the Lake

Following the trend of domestic thrillers championed by authors like Kaira Rouda and Michelle Campbell, Kimberly Belle’s STRANGER IN THE LAKE is a darkly chilling work of psychological suspense.

Lake Crosby, North Carolina, is a complicated, breathtaking town, full of not only gorgeous mountain views and smoky skies, but a shocking wealth disparity. Residents from one side of the mountain are poor, live in trailer parks and shacks, and often have few prospects after college. On the other side, you’ll find exorbitant wealth: designer homes, farm-to-table restaurants and private boat docks. It is on this side of the mountain that we meet Charlotte Keller, the young new bride of Lake Crosby hero Paul Keller, an older wealthy widower.

Though Charlotte (formerly Charlie) hails from the muddy side of the mountain, she is no gold digger. The love she shares with Paul is real, and though her former classmates and friends can’t see it, she is settling into her new life smoothly, bolstered by his support and security. Paul is the lead owner and designer of Keller Architecture, where “cottages” are six-bedroom summer homes for the wealthy. But his wealth and Charlotte’s motivations for marrying him aren’t the only things the citizens of Lake Crosby have to gossip about when it comes to Paul. There’s also the fact that his late wife drowned mysteriously in the lake, despite being a strong and active swimmer. Blinded by love and opportunity, Charlotte married Paul anyway, burning bridges between her and her street-smart friends who “know better,” including police officer Sam.

"Belle is an adept scene setter, and her emotional intelligence pairs perfectly with her descriptive prose to turn even the most calming scene...instantly terrifying with seemingly no effort."

When we meet Charlotte, she has just told Paul that she is pregnant, surpassing his first wife, an ever-present ghost in their relationship, and securing her place in his heart and family tree. After a night of celebrating, Charlotte wakes up alone, which is not unusual with Paul’s strict running schedule, but finds a body washed up under their boat dock, which is definitely unusual. As police swarm the scene and Paul emerges hours later with a mysterious cut on his face, the woman is revealed to be a tourist who Charlotte saw speaking to him the day before. Now it is up to Charlotte to protect her husband --- and figure out how two women with connections to the same man can die the same way only years apart.

Simmering in the background is Batty Jax, the town’s former high school prom king and star quarterback who happened to be part of a trio of best friends that also included Paul. Now he is a homeless nobody who wanders the woods all day, acting as a boogeyman for the town children and a warning to “not end up like Jax.” When the murdered woman washes up on the Kellers’ property, Jax is an obvious scapegoat for the crime, but Charlotte can’t help but wonder if there is something more to him and his connection to Paul and their third friend, Micah, now a police diver and searcher. Why exactly did the three stop talking? And why, when a body washes ashore, does Paul immediately go off in search of Jax if both are innocent? Forced to cover for her husband’s strange behavior, Charlotte begins lying about his whereabouts and her previous sighting of the woman. Before long, the lies are piling up and threatening to put Charlotte and Paul in the crosshairs of a serious investigation with far-reaching repercussions.

As Charlotte begins her own investigation, it becomes clear that Paul is not exactly the man he said he was, nor is he the man the town believes him to be. With dark secrets emerging nearly every hour, Charlotte is left with fewer and fewer people she can trust: Paul has lied, his best friend is the son of the police chief…and who has faith in Jax, a man who threw his life away to run around in the woods? Belle keeps the tension taut and drops breadcrumbs slowly but steadily, all leading to a major reveal.

I have been a fan of Belle’s work for a few years now, and until 2019, I thought nothing could top DEAR WIFE. She is an astute observer of domestic life, and it is her keen understanding of the nuances of private relationships that allows her to infuse them with such drama and tension. In STRANGER ON THE LAKE, she combines this same talent with an absolutely atmospheric setting for a mystery that ebbs and flows much like the lake where it is set, and one that is as dark and unsettling as the stormiest mountain night. I related to Charlotte instantly, and I loved Belle’s inclusion of the theme of wealth disparity and class systems to build her character. Add to that Jax, a newfound favorite of mine, and you have a cast of characters that is fully realized, interesting and endearing, even when they misbehave.

The mystery at the heart of STRANGER IN THE LAKE is a solid one, and I feel confident that most readers will not see every twist and turn coming their way, but I also enjoyed that it is not too scary --- there are few jump scares and moments of violence, but the tone is no less chilling for it. Belle is an adept scene setter, and her emotional intelligence pairs perfectly with her descriptive prose to turn even the most calming scene --- a newly wealthy woman walking through her gorgeous mountain home --- instantly terrifying with seemingly no effort. This is a perfect addition to Belle’s already super list, and I am sure that she will find many new readers with this one.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on July 2, 2020

Stranger in the Lake
by Kimberly Belle