Elizabeth Hand says of Cass Neary, the narrator of Available Dark (Minotaur), her novel of psychological suspense: “She’s an outsider having to go through the motions of interacting with others. She’s essentially a sociopath, but she has a certain charisma that stops her from being totally unlikable.”

Hand introduced Neary in the Shirley Jackson Award–winning Generation Loss (Small Beer, 2007), in which Neary, a self-destructive photographer who captured the punk scene’s most squalid moments on film, interviews a photographer from the 1960s counterculture fringe on a remote Maine island—and becomes a murder suspect.

In Available Dark, Neary is hired to vet some photographs in Helsinki, Finland, but after the photographs go missing and their photographer ends up dead, Neary flees to Reykjavík. She winds up wandering the frozen, desolate Icelandic countryside until she miraculously stumbles onto a cabin, where she must rely on her wits in order to escape with her life.

Neary shares many characteristics with her creator. Hand and Neary both appreciate genius; they both lived the punk scene in the 1970s in New York City. And Hand, like Neary, was horribly attacked at 21. However, unlike Hand, Neary never recovers; after the attack, Neary stopped photographing, although she retains an uncanny skill for detecting the talent in others.

Hand, 54, sees Neary as “close to my own voice, an alternate world version of me if my brake lines had been cut.” Writing Neary is “cathartic—she does terrible things and gets away with it.” We follow Neary’s journey as she gropes toward rediscovering her own artistic vision: “She had it and she squandered it—and that’s why she does what she does,” Hand says. Instead of tapping into her talent, Neary works a dead-end job and numbs herself with alcohol and drugs.

This bleak realism is worlds away from Hand’s fantasy-themed earlier work. Her first novel, the postapocalyptic Winterlong (Spectra, 1990), and its sequel, Aestival Tide (Spectra, 1992), marked her as a science fiction writer. Her two Nebula awards only reinforce that categorization, as does her fourth World Fantasy Award in October 2011 for the story “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon.”

Hand’s early reputation as a stylist—lush, dense prose that she now describes as “purple”—has given way to taut spareness. While she has written in many genres—science fiction, urban fantasy, realism with a twist, young adult fantasy—some themes remain: she often writes about young, emotionally detached women, about big cities and the lonely country, and about artists. “I love artists,” Hand says. “I find them fascinating. To me there really is a genuine magic in what they do.” In addition to Neary, Hand has created protagonists who are writers, painters, graffiti artists, actors, and singers, each with a spark—a remarkable ability to see or access something extraordinary, like Neary’s ability to spot genius in people and in their art.

Hand is drawn to islands and remote places, where anyone who visits will feel like an outsider—an interest she explored when she studied cultural anthropology in college and that she now indulges via travel. She divides her time between urban London and smalltown Maine, and her own visits to Helsinki and Reykjavík informed Available Dark.

Hand uses her writing to act, in true anthropological fashion, as a participant observer; her characters are often, as they say in Maine, “from away.” Like her books’ protagonists, Hand moves freely between two realms, enjoying the anonymity possible in the baroque city and the self-reflection possible in remote isolation.

The Cass Neary novels herald Hand’s move to literary noir thriller, with its nail-biting events and terrifying climaxes. With them, Hand may finally be able to achieve a personal goal of hers: “I want to see it in an airport! I’ve always wanted to write an airport book.”

Karen Hellekson is a freelance editor and writer in Maine.