It’s a Mystery: “Most things are both true and absurd”

It's a Mystery Irma Heldman.jpg

By Ursula Archer and Arno Strobel
Minotaur, 2018

Strangers by Ursula Archer and Arno Strobel.jpg

At the start of Strangers, Joanna Berrigan is home alone in her house near Munich when she is confronted by a man who is a complete stranger to her. He has let himself into the house with a key and insists he’s Erik Thieben, her fiancé, and that they live together. As he talks, attempting familiarity, nothing he says makes sense. The more he tries to comfort, the greater her terror. Furthermore, there is nothing in the house that suggests anyone else lives there. So why, the creepier he becomes, does she feel like she’s the one who’s crazy?

You’re Erik Thieben, coming home from an exhausting day at work to your fiancée. She doesn’t recognize you. She thinks you’re a burglar or worse, a rapist. Everything you say to her seems to terrify her. She claims she has never seen you before. The house holds no trace of you. All your possessions are gone, down to your toothbrush. Your fiancée locks herself in the pantry. She obviously thinks you’re dangerous and crazy. Are you?

As she sits in the prison of her own making, Joanna thinks about Erik. Against her better judgement, she finds him appealing. It’s a sharp contrast to her former fiancé, Matthew, whom she does remember but not fondly. Her domineering father, the third richest man in Australia, picked him out for her to marry. He is still trying to get them together despite Joanna’s vehement objections. But If Erik is telling the truth, why doesn’t she remember anything about him, how they met, how they fell in love?

…I run through the events of this awful evening in my mind again and again, moment by moment. I can’t push them away…. What Erik wants, above everything, is for me to believe him. For me to think that something is wrong with me.

This is the rational Joanna.

At least I don’t have to worry about him cutting my throat in my sleep. After all, a billionaire’s daughter isn’t much use to a con artist once she’s dead.

Since the door is locked from the inside, and Erik can’t get in, this is the irrational Joanna.

In the midst of mutual distrust and paranoia, the couple find themselves drawn to one another. All the more so when a series of near fatal accidents start plaguing the pair. As each incident unfolds, it becomes clear that only by joining forces will they uncover the truth and survive.

Through skillfully woven alternating narratives, we are sucked into their prolonged nightmare. Each of the lovers weighs every word of the other. And it is not until the shocking denouement that we fully understand where they are coming from and why.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.