Stranger or Friend is Sylvia Villalobos’ first book, a mystery. Anyone familiar with Sylvia Writes, Ms. Villalobos’ blog, knows she is a wonderfully lyrical writer, an accomplished painter with words. I was very much looking forward to her book, and I was not disappointed.
Zoe Sinclair returns just before Christmas to her home in Pine Vale, Wyoming, to take care of her mother, who is weak and clearly terminal with a heart condition. She comes back to the cold of an impending winter and the shocking murder of her best friend, Lori. Pine Vale is a small, somewhat isolated town whose citizens know each other. Outsiders are noticeable, and in the minds of some, not welcome. Which is why the Herods – Zoe’s and her mother’s across the road new neighbors – are viewed with such suspicion. No friend could possibly have murdered her, or could they?
Ms. Villalobos sets the scene and the tension at the outset, when Zoe hears a faint crying and someone running in the woods in the dark outside her home just as she is pulling her bags from the car. The situation inside is no better: her mother Rosemary is incredibly weak, can’t be left by herself, and refuses an operation to repair her failing heart. A close family friend, Dr. Knox is overseeing her care and comes every day to check on her.
Zoe’s life is bleak and made bleaker when an old friend from high school, Nolan Fox, now the Sheriff, comes to tell them that Lori is dead, strangled, her clothes ripped off. He needs information from Zoe because of her close relationship with Lori, and from Rosemary, because Zoe had been caring for her. Homicide is something new in Pine Vale, but the Sheriff leaves with more questions than answers.
The town gradually becomes populated with recognizable characters: Marshall Park, an old friend who had stuck up for Zoe in high school and who is now the town’s handyman, despite his desire for a career as an artist; Louise Webber, the town gossip, who puts her nose in everyone’s business; Detective McCoy from the county administration, who is first reluctant to take on the case, then tries to run it by stepping on Sheriff Nolan; Cory, Lori’s boyfriend, knows nothing about what Lori was doing right before she was killed.
Daphne Herod has become a close friend of Mother, as she is called, and it is Mother who introduces Zoe to the family: Daphne, a dream interpreter like Mother; Nick, the younger son who is severely mentally disturbed and who escapes from the house on a regular basis; and the older son Sebastian, a computer geek, whose good looks draw Zoe’s immediate attention. Is it Nick whom she hears in the woods? Did he murder Lori and the family is hiding it? A lot of townspeople think so.
There is plenty of tension along the way to the discovery of the true killer: hang ups on Mother’s phone, a beating given to Zoe when she follows a suspicious red car into the country side, a Christmas card from Lori to Zoe whose message makes no sense, a rock thrown at Mother’s window, another murder. Ultimately, the killer seeks out Zoe herself as the next victim.
I was definitely in suspense until, as they say, all was revealed in the final chapters. If I had a complaint about the book, it would be a rather slow beginning. But by the sixth chapter, I was fully engaged.
Ms. Villalobos has drawn a dark and gritty mystery about a small town full of prejudices, and it’s a good read. Her writing is so descriptive and haunting that this reader found herself sitting right in the middle of Pine vale and its plots.
I recommend it to my blog followers and mystery readers in general!
You can find her book, which is being published by Summer Solstice and which will be released March 24, at:
Disclosure: A free copy of the book was provided to this reviewer.
Silvia Villalobos is a native of Romania who lives in Los Angeles and loves to write murder mysteries and short fiction. Her stories have appeared in The Riding Light Review, Pure Slush, and Red Fez, among other publications. She is attracted to write about premises filled with questions which arouse feelings and mental discourse. Her upbringing in Romania may have contributed to her wonderful imagination and to the writing of stories filled with peril.
She likes to take long walks through the local paseos or hike in the Santa Clarita Woodland Park, and in addition to writing, she blogs regularly and has taken up preparing and giving speeches for Toastmasters International.
Follow her on Twitter: @Sylvia_Writes
and on her blog, Sylvia Writes