“If you get the sudden urge to start trusting someone, be smart and do away with it.” That is the moral of the stories that Alice’s father wove into his bedtime stories he made up for her and her brother Thomas. When she was fourteen, Alice learned how dangerous trust can be when two school friends, the Glassin twins, stabbed her eight times while walking her home. They claimed they were acting at the direction of Mister Tender, the famed bartender in a graphic novel that persuaded people to do awful things. The worst thing, though, is Mister Tender was her father’s creation, a character from those bedtime stories.
Any resemblance to the Slender Man true crime is completely intentional. Carter Wilson read the first three paragraphs of a news story about the Slender Man case, was intrigued by the idea enough to stop reading and avoid learning any more so his imagination could weave something new from that slender thread. He wondered what it must be like to survive such trauma.
The story picks up fourteen years after the attack. Alice mother quickly divorced her father and fled to America with Alice and her brother. Her father was blamed, irrationally, for the attack because he created the character. Alice also changed her name to avoid the morbid curiosity of strangers. She owns a coffee shop and except for frequent, debilitating anxiety attacks, a low-grade suspicion of everyone, and a fear of knives (aichmophobia) so profound she has her butcher cut up her meat, she is doing okay.
But then she discovers there is an online community dedicated to surveilling her with particular interest taken by the leader of the forum, Mr. Interested. Every facet of her life is dissected in an online forum complete with photos that are so intrusive as to be terrifying. Mr. Interested in also stirring up others such as a bullying drug dealer and an ex-boyfriend to do things at his behest, much like the Mister Tender character in her father’s novels. She doesn’t waste much time wondering if she is paranoid, she knows in her bones this is a threat.
Mister Tender’s Girl is an intense psychological thriller that succeeds on every level. Wilson never misses a chance to build tension, even incorporating the macabre into the ordinary. For example, Alice takes her coat off and it is “freckled with the corpses of a thousand melted snowflakes.” When she brushes past an untrimmed tree, the needles remind her of “tiny, bony fingers.” I have not come across anyone whose focus on building the tension extended down to those kinds of details, and it works. I had to put this book down a few times, just to warm up, I was feeling so chilled by the tension.
The characters are satisfyingly complex, except perhaps the threatening drug dealer whose extortion efforts are sidetracked by his rage. But then, people who go from calm to raging in moments are more binary than most. The mystery is fair, we get the same clues she does and there is foreshadowing that is easily missed in the moment, but delivers a satisfying “aha!” in the end. I love that Alice is smart and focused on self-preservation. Even when she plans to confront her suspect, she has a backup plan. She does not rush headlong into disaster, though that does not mean things go as planned.
One of my favorite moments was when she flew back to London to meet the twins who stabbed her and were recently released from prison. She doesn’t think they could be behind Mr. Interested since they were in prison but she believes she might find out something useful from them. As she is leaving, one of the sisters smiles at her. “It’s not the plastic, brainwashed smile of her sister. No, this is the smile as it was first ever invented by humans. Not one to convey joy or happiness, but simply to show the enemy your fangs.”
Mister Tender’s Girl may be loosely based on a true crime familiar to many, but it’s completely fresh and original. I find many suspense novels intriguing. I become wrapped up in the search for a solution or for the way out, but this one actually scared me. That doesn’t happen. I am not the type to be scared by a book, but this one succeeded, in large part, I think to the complete immersion in the world of fear and anxiety down to the corpses of snowflakes.
I received an e-galley of Mister Tender’s Girl from the publisher through NetGalley.