Books

Mystery writer worries there's a stranger in her house

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ST. LOUIS — Laura Benedict worries someone will break into her home. It’s even a frequent dream.

“I also have that fear of coming home and someone being in here,” the author says rather cheerfully.

Perhaps it’s a consequence of imagining ways to kill people, a side effect for mystery writers.

A Richmond Heights, Mo., house occupied by an unwelcome visitor, in fact, provides a mesmerizing beginning to Benedict’s latest novel, “The Stranger Inside.”

As the writer of a series called “Bliss House,” Benedict clearly seems interested in shelters and how they are or aren’t the safe nests every person needs.

As a friend told her, “You do realize houses are your motif.”

“I have a theme,” Benedict says with a note of surprise.

For this latest book, she sets the story in St. Louis, where she went to college and worked during the ‘80s. Now 56, she lives on 12 acres near Carbondale, Ill., with her husband, author Pinckney Benedict, a professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. They have two grown children; the younger is in college.

“The Stranger Inside” starts when a radio station ad saleswoman comes home from a weekend away. Kimber’s house key no longer works, and she glimpses the shadow of a man inside.

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Police are called, but surprisingly they are little help: “The officer interrupts Kimber: ‘Mr. Wilson said he found the listing on a rental website a week ago and that he rented the house sight unseen. He said you told him you were moving in with your boyfriend and that you would appreciate it if he took care of the yard as well.’”

The problem is that the mysterious “Mr. Wilson” also has a lease with Kimber’s signature on it.

And when she tries to push her way into her house, she accidentally falls on Wilson, who says to her quietly: “I was there. I saw what you did.”

This threat deepens the mystery into each person’s background.

Benedict researched the possibilities of a stranger squatting in someone’s home.

“It does happen in different ways, usually when somebody has abandoned a property.” Because there is a lease with what looks like a legitimate signature, the police are unable to throw Wilson out, she says.

“That really complicated things and puts Kimber’s sanity into danger,” she says. “The lease is sort of covering me. It’s a very squishy area. The police can ask people to come out but can’t force them.”

Benedict’s mystery plots are more psychological than bloody. She says she likes a mystery to harken back to the past, so her story with Kimber alternates in time from adulthood to youth.

And it helps explain why Benedict’s heroine isn’t always likable.

The novelist finds characters who are appallingly good “very irritating,” and she admits that her new one has been “kind of an unpleasant person in her life.”

But she came to like Kimber “because she is trying to be a better person.

“None of my characters is 100 percent admirable,” Benedict says. “Because of Kimber’s story, it makes sense that she was pretty ruthless.”

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Benedict is a fan of writers such as Agatha Christie and Louise Penny — and of stories where the “seeds of a crime are set in the distant past.”

Made-up murders are usually complicated unless it’s a revenge shooting or love triangle, she says.

“I love the puzzles of the past. That’s where I like to concentrate my work.”

A home invasion actually brought Benedict to St. Louis.

As a college student in Louisville, Ky., she was dating a “creepy guy who broke into my apartment.”

She decided she didn’t want to be on her own and moved here, where her father worked for Dover Elevators. (Her parents now live in Cincinnati, where Benedict grew up.)

The young Laura Philpot attended the University of Missouri-St. Louis and majored in business. While at school, she became involved in the KWMU radio station and made connections that led to a job after graduation with Busch Creative Services, doing promotion for Anheuser-Busch.

Eventually she noticed that instead of hiring copywriters, she could do it herself, and Anheuser-Busch would pay for her to take some classes in writing at UMSL.

She appreciated her class with writer Charles Wartts, but she also found that graduate workshops were “brutal.”

Her fiction was too plot-oriented, more commercial. “It was not traditional MFA.”

That’s one reason Benedict likes the mystery genre. Other writers are more supportive, not as competitive: “The pie is big enough for everyone. In the academy, it’s a very small pie, and if you get your piece, you hold onto it.”

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But she didn’t want to give up, eventually meeting her future husband at the Appalachian Writers Workshop.

They have been in Carbondale for almost 13 years, where Pinckney Benedict incorporates modern media into his writing classes using virtual reality and podcasting.

His wife is proud, but she remains more wary of technology. In fact, she doesn’t even trust a certain Alexa they invited into their home.

The Amazon device sometimes records its owners when they talk to it and has been used in real-life criminal cases, she says. The Benedicts even found themselves saying “Alexa” too often and decided to change its name.

Technology like GPS in cellphones can make it harder to get away with crimes, the writer says. It’s another reason she prefers old-style mysteries to high-tech thrillers.

“If I were to commit a crime, I’d leave my phone at home.”

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.