Stephen King on Meg Gardiner — The Evan Delaney series has our columnist in suspense
Good things are sometimes found by coincidence. I believe that. I also believe that when great things are found, it’s part of the Big Plan, and if you don’t pass on your discovery, you go to Columnist Hell when you die. I think of Columnist Hell as either an eternity of Larry King interviews or a never-ending American Idol audition in Memphis. Dig the pain: damned to converse with Paula Abdul between acts…forever. And because I don’t want either — please, God, no — I need to tell you about Meg Gardiner, who simply must be part of the Big Plan. And if you love great thrillers, you’ll want to listen.
In my house, I have a bookcase filled with Someday Books. These are publisher-generated freebies that look like they might be good. (Ones that look bad go away in the cornfield…and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you didn’t watch enough Twilight Zone episodes as a kid.) I know I’ll probably read less than 1 percent of my Someday Books, but every now and then I do pull one out. Usually I’m disappointed, but sometimes…lightning.
Last November I had to do a book tour in England, which I looked forward to with the enthusiasm I have for emergency root canals. For an airplane read, I pulled China Lake, the first of Meg Gardiner’s Evan Delaney series, from the Someday Bookcase. It was the first book I saw by my own U.K. publisher there (yes, Uncle Stevie can brown-nose with the best of them). And the type was big. That was the true deciding factor.
I barely noticed the plane ride (save that one patch of turbulence when I was convinced, as always, that death was approximately three minutes away). China Lake had me from page 1, on which a vicious religious cult called the Remnant pickets a funeral with charming signs reading ”God Hates Sluts” and ”AIDS Cures Whores.” Seven hours and 470 pages later I landed in England, convinced I had found the next suspense superstar. This book had everything. It came complete with an ultra-tough SoCal heroine (think Kinsey Millhone, only punk rock and in combat boots) and a climax which involves defusing a ticking time bomb and a stampeding brush fire.
My first question to the nice publishing people who met me at the airport was why an American woman writing thrillers set in California was living and working in England. They didn’t seem to know. I next asked how many of the four Evan Delaney books (there are now five — Kill Chain was just published) had been best-sellers in England. The answer was none. This staggered me. Then I asked who publishes her in the U.S., and the answer was no one. That floored me. I mean, this woman is as good as Michael Connelly and far better than Janet Evanovich. And she can be fall-on-your-fanny hilarious; Ms. Gardiner’s narrator heroine pointing out that the road to hell is paved with disco balls, for instance. I kind of knew that, but had never been able to express it.
In the three months or so since my tour ended, I’ve tried to advance Ms. Gardiner’s cause, using my favorite Evan Delaney caper, Crosscut, as an example. In this one, Evan — accompanied by her handsome but wheelchair-bound boyfriend, Jesse — attends her high school reunion only to discover that an awfully high rate of mortality afflicts the class. Turns out the ones who aren’t dying as the result of a top secret military experiment that went wrong are being wiped out by a serial killer who has the MO of the Marquis de Sade and the grim resilience of the Terminator. Crosscut is full of classic Gardiner one-liners, and there’s Evan’s Cousin Tater for comic relief (the sexually voracious Tater throws underwear parties for adventurous cowgirls — don’t ask), but mostly there’s a serious freezerload of scare-you-silly chills.
The answer from the editors who chose to try this book was classic publishing: ”Somehow this just doesn’t…work for us.” Do you suppose Sue Grafton once heard that one? I do. Like, before Kinsey Millhone made the alphabet famous. One editor — who I know is familiar with Patricia Cornwell’s blood-drenched Kay Scarpetta mysteries — suggested Gardiner’s Jericho Point was perhaps too intense. I didn’t think there could be ”too intense” when it came to suspense fiction, but oh, silly me.
We’ve been down this road before, you and I — Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running was one case (finally published by Viking, bless ’em), and also the excellent alt-rock album Mistakes Were Made, by Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers. Because I don’t want to go to Columnist Hell, I must bring these things to your attention, even when the cause is clearly hopeless. But it ain’t hopeless here; if you can reach Amazon, you can get your very own Meg Gardiner novel and see for yourself. I recommend starting with China Lake, only because it’s the first, but as the Brits like to say, they’re all smashing. And those British covers are cool. Take my word for it: Anyone who can describe Southern California as ”the Taco Bell school of architecture” deserves an audience. And that would be you.