Though it's being marketed as a thriller, there is no "whodunit" to A Stranger Like You. We know who did it; we are there when he does it, feeling sympathy for the insurance underwriter-by-day, screenwriter-by-night Hugh Waters as he stalks, abducts, and all but leaves for dead Hedda Chase, the shrewish Hollywood exec who's put the kybosh on his picture deal. "The influence of film and television is enormous in our lives," said Elizabeth Brundage, who reads Wednesday, July 20, at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) and Thursday, July 21, at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 La Salle Ave., Oakland). "Watching a film can be a personal, even intimate experience. We are invited into the private lives of strangers. We become voyeurs in a world where nearly anything is possible and we believe in the impossible. In Hugh Waters' case, this becomes a very dangerous reality."
There are two major mysteries in A Stranger Like You: Whether Waters' deed will be discovered, and whether Chase will survive. And though Waters makes some brazen inroads to Chase's rarified circle, this rumpled, unraveling character is no charming, desperate Tom Ripley, the shape-shifting, opportunistic anti-hero of Patricia Highsmith's The Incredible Mr. Ripley. You want him to get caught. Because the other mystery, that of Chase's survival, benefits from Brundage's rich, fine-boned character study of Chase. Unlike Ripley's quarry, we get to know Chase in the book's second section, the loneliness of her position as a woman in a sexist industry — one that creates misogynist fantasies for the world to feast on.
Brundage, who has previously set her fiction in the Berkshires and upstate New York, is no stranger to Hollwood — she studied at the American Film Institute and then attempted to make a go of it in the business. "Immediately following film school I worked briefly for a powerful female producer who became the inspiration for Hedda Chase," Brundage said. "As a Hollywood player she is powerful, fierce. But as a woman she remains vulnerable, conflicted, burdened with self-loathing and doubt."
While it does have a certain noirish pallor — shifty characters, seedy motel rooms, hidden agendas, the barely concealed fangs of desperate Hollywood ambition — A Stranger Like You is almost an anti-noir, thanks in part to its feminist perspective. "I grew up on film noir," Brundage explained, "watching movies like Double Indemnity, Cape Fear, The Postman Always Rings Twice, among so many others. These were intensely gripping films and yet they were highly misogynistic, populated with brutal men who had nothing but contempt for the women in their lives, women who were bad news and deserved (and secretly wanted) to be 'taken' or controlled, promoting decades of repression for ordinary women as a result, not to mention domestic abuse."
Another way that A Stranger Like You turns noir on its head is that, instead of the reader mistrusting everyone, we are let into the heads of a number of people who, at times, we can't help but trust, despite our better judgment. "I think it's fair to call the novel an anti-noir," said Brundage, "and yet, at the same time, it relies on noir's broadest strokes — bad people doing bad things and suffering the consequences. These days trust has become a dubious convention, especially in a town like Hollywood where deception can be a sophisticated tool. In our lives, trust can be ambiguous; small betrayals are a daily occurrence. I'm interested in writing about that ambiguity."