Book Review: Don’t Look Down by Hilary Davidson
Don’t Look Down by Hilary Davidson is a fast-paced, twisty, classic city crime thriller that leaves one fully satisfied with the conclusion but perhaps thirsting a little more for the inner lives of the characters.
The book begins not with NYPD Detective Sheryn Sterling, but with Jo Greaver, who is headed to an assignation to pay off a blackmailer. We’re instantly drawn into her world and her turmoil. She’s a successful self-created business owner but now a tragic past is coming back to haunt her. In other words, a desperate person in her most desperate moment:
Jo barely heard him; the sound of her own blood was beating in her ears. She’d had a vision of what she needed to do: march in, gather information, secure every copy of the video, and hand over the cash. Everything had gone sideways fast, with this smarmy creep’s hot eyes on her. She found herself gazing at the Holy Family again. There were so many colors swirling in it, but what stood out to her were little drops of red; at that moment, they looked to her like blood. The photos slipped out of her left hand. They fluttered to the floor as she clutched the duffel bag; her right hand, deep in her pocket, gripped her gun. She slid the safety off with her thumb.
The opening immediately hooked me, especially since it’s not clear whether Jo is going to be someone we, the reader, will empathize with or condemn. But by the time the scene is over, we’re worried for Jo, fearing for her next bad choice, and wondering just how bad the fallout will be for her own life.
Enter Det. Sterling, who finds a crime scene in that apartment eerily similar to the one that Jo fled from but with some important differences that led Sterling to believe not is all as it seems. It’s the untangling of those differences that give the plot momentum, as nothing is as it seems, not for Jo, not for Sterling, and not for the reader.
There are some wonderful touches to the setting. Davidson takes us into the small details of New York City, allowing the reader to place themselves into these parts of Manhattan. I particularly loved the details of the rooftops that can be seen from Jo’s office in the Flatiron building and the crumbling Hell’s Kitchen apartment building that’s the scene of the crime:
There was no elevator inside. Jo pushed her sunglasses up so that they lay under the hood like a plastic headband. She was no stranger to walk-ups but even the worst of the cockroach-infested dumps she’d seen looked better than this one. The staircase banister had been ripped, leaving a few wooden spikes behind. The stairs themselves were sagging and crumbling. The walls were so badly damaged that they looked like they were melting, with big holes punched out of them. There was so much plaster dust in the air Jo could feel it scratching at her throat.
It’s one of those books that I couldn’t put down until the end and fully satisfying in that regard. But there are times when I wished to have a deeper emotional connection with the characters.
We feel much of what Jo feels but there are times I wanted more. What was she thinking as she collapses from the weight of it all, indulging in too much alcohol? Take this scene as she wakes up in the hospital after collapsing:
When she finally came to, Joe opened her eyes and stared at an endless blank expanse. It took her some time to realize that it was a ceiling and she was in bed and that there were beeps and footsteps and other sounds in the not-far-off-distance. She realized that she wasn’t dead, and that disappointed her. It wasn’t that she’d tried to kill herself, but she’d given up on finding a way out of this mess.
This is very good but it only goes so far. I get a sense of what’s around Jo but I don’t get a sense of how her body feels as this moment, what it feels like to be her after giving into despair on a visceral level.
Sterling, too, has thoughts about the people she’s investigating. We get her point of view often and she judges them internally—sometimes harshly in the case of the actual killer– but the emotions are surface level. She’s a fascinating character and well-suited to carry her own series (this is book 2 in her tales) and while I learned about her family, about her special worries as a Black mother for her Black son, and her concern for her partner, who’s recovering from injuries sustained in book one, I didn’t get a deep down sense of who she is as yet.
But I’d highly recommend this book as an excellent crime thriller, with a memorable main character, and a wonderful, idealistic lead detective who is confident in her skills, and firm in her ideals, despite, or perhaps because of the prejudice she can sometimes face as a Black woman in the New York Police Department.