By Vicki Medland
You know a writer is pretty good when she can write two award-winning books in two years.
However, when it’s her first two published novels, and when they are in the super-saturated mystery market, and then, when she pulls out a long-discarded manuscript and transforms it into another award-nominated book just two years later?
Lori Rader-Day‘s first mystery, The Black Hour, won the 2015 Anthony Award for Best First Novel and was a finalist for the 2015 Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her second novel, Little Pretty Things, won the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award and was a nominee for the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original. The Day I Died, published in 2017, is an Indie Next Pick, a finalist for the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, and a nominee for both the 2018 Mary Higgins Clark Award and a Barry Award. Rader-Day’s fourth novel, Under a Dark Sky, is a “locked-room” mystery set in a dark sky park in Michigan and will be released in August 2018.
I think what makes Lori Rader-Day’s novels worthy of such recognition is that they are as much about survival and emotional justice as they are about solving mysteries. The crime is the lever that catapults her protagonists out of a dark, claustrophobic existence into a larger, more positive space.
Each novel is stand-alone, rather than part of a series. While all can be described as social novels, Rader-Day is clearly interested in exploring the breadth of the genre: The Black Hour is a psychological thriller, Little Pretty Things is an amateur sleuth mystery, and The Day I Died is more of a police procedural. But there are common themes beyond her tight writing and unique female protagonists that stack these stories together.
Rader-Day has often explained that she starts with a situation she finds interesting: What if this happened? How would that play out? Each of her main characters finds herself in a world made small by trauma and circumstance: a shooting survivor, two friends in competition since high school, and a single mother who holds her tween son too close.
The mystery these women fall into drives each story forward, forcing the character into a reluctant form of self-examination. And her characters are on some wild rides. Each of the women finds herself in a world that has collapsed into a small space by trauma. Sometimes that trauma is evident from the first page. Amelia Emmet navigates a small campus on crutches after surviving a school-shooting in the The Black Hour. The characters in Little Pretty Things and The Day I Died hold the pain of their traumas tight, revealing its cause in fragments, chapter by chapter.
Real fragments are metaphors for this: the trinkets that motel housekeeper Juliet Townsend steals from the guests, and the scraps of handwriting Anna Winger analyzes for personality clues, so that the reader has more than one mystery to solve.
And each novel ends in a good way, with life on the upswing for these women. Don’t get me wrong, these are dark stories, and there is no air-brushed Hallmark Channel cozy ending awaiting these women. But each character finds the courage she needs to save herself and to live a larger life.
As Rader-Day described in an interview on the Mysterypeople blog,
I like to punish my characters, but then when they run the maze, they get the treat. I also want to write women characters who win in the end. We don’t, always, and we usually don’t win at all in crime fiction. All those nameless, trait-less dead women in crime fiction… There are plenty of feminist crime fiction writers and feminist crime fiction characters—I don’t know that I’m inventing anything.
I agree with other reviewers that Rader-Day is molding the evolution of literary feminist noir. Rader-Day’s women are flawed and unhappy; they have retreated because of psychological and physical trauma and are fighting against an unfair system. But, rather than recreate the superhuman protagonists of so many recent “Girl” thrillers, Rader-Day puts just a little-bit-weird, slightly-damaged Midwesterners behind the wheel.
And they do get to win, and ultimately, that’s what makes these novels such fun and satisfying rides.
Lori Rader-Day joins UntitledTown for several events, including a Saturday panel with fellow thriller writers Patricia Skalka and Karan Dionne, a panel on Sunday, and a Sunday presentation on Writing Suspense for Fun and Profit.