In Kelsey Rae Dimberg’s debut thriller GIRL IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR, Finn Hunt lucks into the job of a lifetime when she becomes a nanny for a political power couple in Phoenix. The glamorous lifestyle of Philip Martin, the son of a senator, and his wife Marina dazzles Finn, but she loves being part of this accomplished family and caring for her young charge, the Martins’ precocious four-year-old, Amabel.
When a young woman approaches Finn and asks her to carry a message to Philip, Finn becomes enmeshed in a web of deadly lies—including her own. Secrets best left alone are laid bare under the broiling Phoenix sun, as a senate seat hangs in the balance.
Megan Abbot says this story is “an exciting, intoxicating debut, it will hold you until its startling final pages” and Sarah Weinman calls it “thrilling, thoughtful, and suspenseful.” Hallie Ephron says the story reminds her of “the ghost of Mary Jo Kopechne,” as “an appealing young woman is caught up in a power political family’s prestige and privilege.”
Dimberg says inspiration for this story was classic noir—but with a twist. “I wanted to play with the genre’s tropes. Rather than the hard-boiled detective, I was interested in their moral role in the story. I relished the exposure of rot and scandal behind powerful families, but favored domestic disturbances over benders and gambling debts. I liked the idea of an ordinary person drawn into a mystery, but I wanted that person to be a woman, both vulnerable and tough.”
GIRL IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR started as a break from a more literary novel she was writing, Dimberg, an MFA graduate, says. “Almost immediately, I felt more engaged in the thriller/crime genre. This avenue of storytelling worked for my voice. In particular, the family drama, the tension between Philip Martin and his father, for me was as much a core of the book as the crime elements.” That said, she doesn’t think “genre labels should matter as much as they do. Plenty of literary fiction revolves around crimes, and plenty of crime fiction includes literary elements, like strong, character-driven action.”
The story is packed with twists and surprises, including a stunner at the mid-way point. “I knew the book would begin with Amabel telling her nanny a woman is following her, and I knew the secret that drives the action. From there, twists came out, including the ending. Most of those elements I can’t really plan—I need to work them out on the page.”
The nanny, Finn Hunt, narrates the story in first person. “Some of the story turns on secrets in the Martins’ past, which she doesn’t have access to. Also, as strange events begin to happen, other characters lie to her, and of course there’s a lot of offstage action she’s not privy to.”
Finn’s pattern of wiling her way into the lives of richer, generous families, where she sees luxury, but also happiness causes her to grow closer to the Martins, “even to the point of being too attached to them.”
The attachment and her past weigh on her. “She’s moved across the country and taken a new name, yet her effort to start over backfires. She’s hiding her real self, which makes her vulnerable to being exposed and kicked out. Her reflexive secretiveness and shame are more of a liability than her actual past.”
Dimberg says she loved writing Amabel. “I wanted to make her a real character, with meaningful actions and words, and Finn and Amabel share a deep bond.”
That relationship feeds the story’s mid-point twist. “Finn’s heartbreak over the one event drives her to the edge of reason and to the final devastating realization. I wanted an authentically bleak noir ending, and I channeled some of the rage and despair I feel about politicians: that power is so corrupting, so self-serving, and that too many politicians act without regard for younger generations.”
The most fun for Dimberg was “writing the over-the-top wealthy society, capturing each character’s voice and idiosyncrasies, and Finn’s increasing paranoia. The hardest parts were having to make very bad things happen to characters I liked.”
The Arizona setting was perfect. “I lived in Arizona for several years and wanted to portray the state as I remembered it: frigid air conditioning, glittering swimming pools, looping freeways, sprawling suburbs, glass-walled mansions, and run-down ranches. Arizona felt like an ideal noir setting with its glaring sun and menacing inverse of shadowy streets.”
The Martins’ world also was a setting. “In the first half, when Finn is ‘in’ with the Martins, she inhabits a manicured and wealthy version of the desert. In the second half, she ventures outside of their world, and that Arizona is much harsher, both the interior settings and the outside desert landscape. I wanted to play that up, to reflect the way the world treats people like the Martins very differently.”
This different type of treatment is one of the underlying themes in Dimberg’s work. “I’ve always felt that crime fiction is excellent at taking on such social themes, maybe because crime investigations strip away the façade of everyday life. That said, I tried to set up the story so the themes would rise naturally, rather than be forced onto the reader. Finn is of a much lower social class than the Martins, though her intimate access to them gives her a false impression of closeness. She openly aspires to be part of their class. Wishing to be part of the uber-wealthy is hardly uncommon in America and is why we regard wealthy celebrities with such rapt fascination. By the final draft, Finn was more complicated—certainly more attached to the Martins, far more vulnerable, but also more secretive, and with more of an edge.”
Dimberg worked on this story for about six years, chipping away at it until she could resolve her main challenge: “Finding time to write and maintaining the habit even when it saps your free time, while publication is never a sure thing.”
To find her agent, Dan Conaway, she cold-queried. “I suddenly wished I’d moved to New York after grad school or had run a blog or social media account with thousands of followers—but I hadn’t. I focused on making the book as good as it could be, and that turned out to be enough. In many ways, I feel so lucky: Dan is a fantastic agent who sold my book to a smart, insightful editor who’s a pleasure to work with.”
What did she learn about this process that she might pass on to aspiring writers? “Be patient, and put your writing first.”
Great advice. We can hardly wait for her next novel—a standalone crime thriller surrounding a high-profile internet personality.
Kelsey Rae Dimberg received an MFA from the University of San Francisco and studied at Barrett Honors College of Arizona State University, where she was editor-in-chief of the literary magazine, Lux. GIRL IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR is her first novel.
To learn more about Kelsey Rae Dimberg, please visit her website.