William Morrow, 384 pages, $16.99 (c2018)
I read a couple of books in Alison Gaylin’s Brenna Spector series and liked them. One of the things I liked was Gaylin’s ability to humanize her characters but still give them quirks; they are the same as we are … but different. “If I Die Tonight” also shows this talent. Gaylin has several characters whose lives we follow for an intense but short period of time.
Jackie Reed is the divorced mother of two teenage children. Her older son, Wade, has become more distant and uncommunicative. Her younger son, Connor, feels the tension in the house and is trying to hold on to everyone. Their dad was a jerk who left the family about a decade earlier and has had no contact with them.
Pearl Maze is an officer on the police force of the little upstate New York town of Havenkill. (I know, right, what a name!) She has a dark history and it eventually erupts during the events of the story. In the meantime, she is the logical, empathetic, reasonable one on the force. Her partner, Bobby, seems like a teenager in an adult’s body. Not Bob, certainly, forever Bobby. There are many more characters whose pertinence flows in and out of the storyline.
In the early morning hours, a has-been pop star, Amy Nathanson (Amy En), has her Baby carjacked. Baby is a Jaguar still in the prime of its life. In the process, the carjacker runs over Liam Miller, a classmate of Wade Reed. Liam was trying to stop the car, ran in front of it, and was hit. Or so Amy tells the police, her voice cracking, mascara running down her face, her rainbow-colored hair wet and stringy, and alcohol stinging her breath. The car is gone, her purse and phone are gone, and the body of Liam Miller is lying on the road where he was hit.
Amy (Nathanson, the ex-pop star) cannot describe the carjacker very well, only his dark clothing. The next morning Jackie (Reed, the mom) discovers Wade’s dark clothing in the family’s dryer. Hmm, she thinks, that’s funny, and not in a funny-haha way. You see where author Gaylin is taking you. So was Wade the carjacker? Did he run over his classmate? Wade was certainly perturbed the rest of that day. He should have been taking his SAT test, but instead he is belligerent, mopey, and uncommunicative. And doesn't take the test. As if he had other things on his mind.
It becomes not so much about whether Wade is the carjacker as how everyone in town perceives him to be the carjacker and what that means in how he and his family are treated. Hint: Almost everyone is really nasty. Gaylin details the nastiness, the loneliness of the family members, the confusion and hurt of Jackie and Connor. What do you do when the whole town has already viewed the scant facts and chosen a guilty party?
Pearl (Maze, the cop) is the one voice of temperance. She doesn’t close off the possibility that there could have been another scenario of the crime, another person with a guilty conscience. Did Amy En make up the whole thing? And what about Pearl’s own life? A fly appears in the ointment, a spanner in the works, a thorn among the roses. Not that her life is all roses, but the thorn threatens to derail what there is of it.
Gaylin doesn’t go down any “Gone Girl” twisty paths or any Stephen King clown-in-the-gutter streams. Her style is more down-to-earth and this book is more believable than most. It COULD happen to you. Gaylin also shows kindness and generosity of spirit in some of her characters. The resolution is achieved not so much by good detection but by old-fashioned guilt.
This was an enjoyable read.
1-31-19: “If I Die Tonight” has been nominated for the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Paperback.