Carla Norton's first novel, The Edge of Normal, is a twisted tale of sexual depravity set in the middle of an unsuspecting community. It's written with the self-assurance and attention to detail that marks a seasoned crime writer -- and that's largely because while this is Norton's first novel, it's not her first book.
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Twenty years ago, Norton was working as an editor in Tokyo when she came across a breaking story about a young woman who'd been kidnapped and held captive for more than 7 years. The story hit home for Norton, literally; it took place in California "almost in her backyard," near where she'd grown up.
When she flew home to visit her family for Christmas, she found herself enthralled by what she learned about the kind of mind control the kidnapper had practiced and what she calls the skepticism in the community about the young girl's experience.
"They didn't believe that somebody could be held captive without being forcibly restrained every minute," she says.
Back in Tokyo, Norton ordered the preliminary transcript hearing. It weighed in at 300 pages, and cost about a dollar a page to get, "which was a lot of money for me." Norton was hooked. "I thought, 'I've got to cover this case.'"
The resulting book, Perfect Victim: The True Story of the Girl in the Box, came out in 1988 to critical and popular acclaim. Written with the prosecutor, it spent months on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Best Seller list, and the FBI put the book on the reading list for its Behavioral Sciences Unit.
Her new novel, The Edge of Normal, covers some of the same ground that "A Perfect Victim" did, but in this case, there are several victims, including Reeve LeClaire, the book's heroine. Reeve's recovery from a horrific experience not unlike the one described in A Perfect Victim, and her ability to help others who've been through similar trauma, ensure that The Edge of Normal isn't as unrelentingly grim as it could be. It's a well-paced story with moments of tenderness, humor and redemption -- and a very satisfying ending.
"The great thing about fiction (as compared to non-fiction)," Norton says, "is that you can do terrible things to your villains. You know they're guilty and you can dish out whatever you wish to them."
This avenging streak in Norton stretches back to childhood.
"I was always very keen about injustices and the underdog," she says. "The first story I can remember writing seriously, in about 5th or 6th grade, was from the point of view of a girl who dressed as a boy in the Civil War. She fought for the Union.
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"If I could be an avenger, in my fantasy life, that's what I would do. I'm not a doctor, I'm not a cop, but in my writing I do my best to stand up for the underdog, the victim. Good triumphs over evil, we hope. Without giving too much away."
Norton says she's "up to her eyeballs" in the sequel, which should be out about this time next year. Meanwhile, The Edge of Normal is being shopped around Hollywood.
If you're wondering who Norton favors in the roles of Reeve, her tough yet fragile heroine, and Dr. Ezra Lerner, the wise young shrink who helps Reeve come to terms with her abuse, drop by Scottsdale's Poisoned Pen Bookstore this Saturday at 2 p.m., when Norton will be there for a book-signing. Tell her we sent you.