Book Review: A Stranger in Town by Kelley Armstrong
By Janet WebbFebruary 5, 2021
Trouble always seems to find Detective Casey Duncan and her boyfriend and boss Sheriff Eric Dalton, particularly when they’re off-piste, looking for some R&R in the wilderness surrounding Rockton. For readers who are new to Rockton, a thumbnail explanation—
First, let me explain Rockton to those new to the series: it’s a small, isolated town in the Yukon wilderness, built decades ago as a haven for those running from their pasts. It’s completely off the grid, with no electricity, no Internet, no cell phones, and not even postal mail. Prospective residents are heavily vetted by a shadowy council who serves as Rockton’s only channel to modern life. No one gets in or out without the council’s permission.
Kelley Armstrong unveils the wonders of the Yukon in a compelling way. Dawson City, the town a few privileged citizens of Rockton visit occasionally for supplies, is familiar to me. I lived there as a child and came back in the summer of 2016 for the 125th celebration of the Dawson City Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation. Dawson City is a protected Klondike National Historic Site i.e., it’s very much visually as it was a century ago. On Casey and Eric’s recent supply run, they overhear a “Germanic speaker wearing overpriced outdoor gear.” Casey recalls the moment.
My memory shuffles through images and stops at one from today’s supply run. We’d been walking along the wooden sidewalks of Dawson City. It’s so quiet at this time of year that it reminds me of a Wild West town at high noon, and I half expect tumbleweeds rolling down the dirt roads. When we did hear voices, they rang as loud as church bells. It’d been a quartet speaking in a Germanic language, all dressed in expensive outdoor wear as they prepared for a trip to Tombstone Park.
“Guess we didn’t beat tourist season after all,” I’d said to Dalton.
Rockton, “a haven for those running from their pasts,” caps its population at around two hundred people. Lately, it has seemed to Detective Casey Duncan that the mysterious town council is applying those guidelines more draconically than ever. She wonders why fewer and fewer newcomers are allowed into Rockton, and even more puzzling, why no extensions are being given to folks who are living there. Eric is more sanguine about the ebb and flow of people but it’s in Casey’s nature to be suspicious.
When Casey and Eric are about an hour away from Rockton, relaxing in the forest with their marvelous Newfoundland dog Storm and a few friends, a strange woman erupts from the woods. She’s hysterical, injured, and most unusually, barefoot. She doesn’t speak English.
I glance at the bloody bandage around her waist. It’s crimson now, fresh blood seeping through. I move up the woman’s side.
The bandage is only roughly tucked in, a haphazard job. As others hold the woman still, I unravel the dressing, blocking out her screams and curses. I don’t even have it halfway open before the smell hits me.
“What is that?” Sebastian says, hand flying to his nose.
I wheel to Sebastian. “Get April. Now.”
April is Rockton’s doctor and Casey’s older sister. The council disapproves of anyone entering Rockton’s perimeter without their permission, but Casey makes a split-second decision to treat the stranger in the town. It helps that she doesn’t speak English because the townspeople will be both alarmed and intrigued to have a stranger in their midst. It turns out the woman is Danish—interestingly, a newcomer to Rockton speaks Danish and attempts to translate. What happened to her? Who injured her? Casey and Eric make the horrific discovery of two, maybe three mutilated bodies in the wilderness. They conclude that the stranger was part of the Germanic-speaking quartet they spotted in Dawson City. Were they tourists, looking for an unusual off-the-grid adventure in the Yukon, or was their presence somehow connected to Rockton? The story gets more and more complicated and no answers are easily forthcoming.
The vicissitudes of the natural world are never to be ignored either. A stand-off between Casey and the Momma Bear is worthy of a Viking Saga Song. Casey inadvertently gets between a grizzly and her cubs—fortunately for the outcome, the bear is more curious than hungry. It’s an intense, cinematic scene.
There is a bear standing over my head, looking down, face barely a foot over mine. Not the juvenile who’d knocked me down. Its mother.
A growl off to my side. One that has the mother bear’s head jerking up, and a moment of sheer relief that vanishes when I see what she’s looking at. Storm facing off with the young bear that tripped me.
Casey gets Eric to call off their protective dog and all’s well that ends well but it’s unforgettable. Imagine being in Casey’s position: “I listen to the sound of her breathing. I inhale the musky scent of her. I feel her hot breath on my face.”
Readers need to remember that no one inside or outside Rockton is to be taken at face value. Everyone has a backstory that very few people are privy to. Casey suspects that the mysterious stranger in town is not a foreign tourist and that she is not who she purports to be. Casey uses the “analogy of the internet.”
On it, you can present whatever version of yourself you choose. While you can be a better person online—kinder and wittier and more open-minded than you are in real life—it’s easier to be your worst self, freed from expectations.
Hovering over every step forward Casey and Eric make in their quest to solve the mystery in their midst, is the omniscient and taciturn council. Casey wonders frequently if the council has a vision for the future (or not) of Rockton that it hasn’t shared with the residents. If Casey is correct, Rockton #7 may take an unexpected turn into an unknown future.