Who killed her? Who can you trust? And how well do you really know your neighbours?
Just some light mid-morning thoughts as I planted myself down on Logan Avenue recently.
Early for my coffee date with Shari Lapena – the Toronto author who just happens to be one of the best-selling thriller writers on the planet right now – I was minding my own business at The Riverdale Perk, a regular haunt for the long-time east-ender, when a woman with a middling resemblance to Kathy Bates began barking to her friend about a mystery tree poisoner on her street.
Obviously, I could not wait to tell the congenial Lapena when she eventually appeared, quickly offering a tell-me-more smile.
Left unsaid? How this woman could easily have been a character wafting out of her just-out novel, Someone You Know, a book, which like many of her books, delves into neighbourhood paranoia and unfolds as a knotty whodunit. One, incidentally, that comes on the heels of her last three thrillers, which topped best-seller lists on a myriad of continents, including the U.K., where her break-out book The Couple Next Door was the country’s #1 fiction best-seller, full-stop, in 2017.
“I read this news story about a teenage boy who had his WiFi cut off at home and so he broke into someone’s house to borrow theirs,” the author started to tell me about her latest. “I stuck in a murder…went from there.”
Not bad for a woman who once toiled as both an English teacher and bankruptcy lawyer and did not break into writing thrillers until well into her fifties, right? Mostly, though, what I wanted to know was this: now that she is a made-in-Canada sensation, in demand at author festivals everywhere from Istanbul to Reykjavik – and is, moreover, someone who famously sets her books in upstate New York, in one form or another – what inspiration does she derive from her own backyard?
Indeed, having walked around the ‘hood on my way to meet her, it wasn’t lost on me that the streetscape resembled the one she paints in Someone You Know: houses sitting snugly to one another, in some cases, set well back from the road, and in others, windows peering onto the backs of other windows. The leafy streets. The family environs. The wary politeness.
“One of the reasons I have set my books in upstate New York is because there is a similarity,” Lapena conceded. She was referring to both weather, and general topography, but also to a neighbourhood such as hers, which she described as “very much like a village within a larger city, with its own shops and so on…lots of parks and greenery.” Indeed, the author has lived in the ‘hood, in different houses, for most of her adult life.
In terms of her own regular Riverdale-area haunts, she pointed to the Pizza Libretto, on the Danforth. It is where she gets her pizza fix, and also where she had a “to die for” lavender lemonade recently. The sprawling Withrow Park is her favourite place to go for a walk – to “think things through” – while the Pape/Danforth branch of the Toronto Public Library is her mecca, books-wise. “I can’t think of anything better to have in any neighbourhood than a good library, and we are very lucky to have it.”
As for cuticle maintenance – very important for an internationally best-selling writer! – she tells me that she gets hers done regularly at TIPS Nail Bar. “The best place for nails!” she enthused.
Segueing for a bit about what she counts as literary influences, Lapena pointed to a wide range of authors: obviously, someone like Agatha Christie looms large, as well as her contemporaries in the thriller genre like Gillian Flynn and Ruth Ware. See, too, a smorgasbord of other authors, dead and alive: Kate Atkinson, Lionel Shriver, and Anthony Trollope. Memoir-wise, she fan-girls bad for Mary Karr, author of The Liars Club.
“You have to read The Psychopath Inside,” she continued, going on to tell me about a book written by an actual neuroscientist who diagnosed himself as a psychopath.
The book, as she described it, functions as a mesmerizing journey into the psychopathic mind – and no doubt, has proven to be useful research for her. Later, when I asked what constitutes the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath, she quipped: “A psychopath is a high-functioning sociopath.” Noted.
Given that her books often revolve around the question, how well do you know your neighbours?, I wondered how hers see her. Indubitably, what they might transmit at first is a nice, cherubic-looking mother-of-two whose husband works in IT, and who has at least one daughter who is really into horses. But little do they know she is watching them watching others.
“I think some are more wary of me now,” Lapena laughed.