Fresh Meat: What Doesn’t Kill Her by Carla Norton

What Doesn't Kill Her by Carla Norton is the 2nd psychological thriller featuring U.C. Berkley student Reeve LeClaire, who is yanked back into her grim past when her old abductor escapes from a psychiatric hospital (available June 30, 2015).

All you have to say is “mental hospital,”and you have my undivided attention. When I picked up Carla Norton’s What Doesnt Kill Her, I expected a crime thriller about a young woman who learns her kidnapper is free and roaming the streets, ready to come after her or find a new victim. I might be a bit of an abnormal psychology junkie, so my eagerness to see how Norton played out the antagonist’s mental illness was one of the main factors in choosing this book.

What Doesnt Kill Her opens with a flashback of Reeve (then Reggie) stealing away for a dip in the lake before her sister’s recital. She returns to the woods to find the tire on her bike flat. A man offers her a lift; Reggie declines. We already know this doesn’t end well. The man suggests he drive the bike in his van while she walks. After all, she’s going uphill and wouldn’t it be much faster? She accepts, and “as she was shifting her grip, he hit her with a jolt like a snakebite that spun the sky red.”

From there, we move to Olshaker Psychiatric Hospital, and into the head of Reeve’s captor, Daryl Wayne Flint. I was a little surprised by the transition, but it was a nice switch from the standard crime procedural. Turns out Reeve’s rescue was a result of a car wreck that left Flint with brain damage, causing him to develop obsessive compulsive disorder. Don’t underestimate him, though; for Flint, there’s a method to his madness.

“See that longhaired guy with the wild beard? The one that looks like Charles Manson? Watch what he does.”

Flint ignores the comment and struts across the damp grass toward the asphalt basketball court. Exactly at center court, he stops, opens his arms wide, and starts a slow spin.

The familiar scenes flash past: the parking lot, the cafeteria windows, the blank wall, the iron- girded windows of the warden’s corner office, the lawn extending to the fence, the woods beyond, and—what’s this?—a wink of light from between the trees.

He wishes he could stop and study but must continue his rotations.

A huge patient named Galt dribbles the basketball toward him. “Hurry up, man.”

Flint sticks to his routine. Again: the cafeteria windows, the bare wall, the warden’s office, the hospital grounds . . . and then, yes, he sees it distinctly: A car is coming down the road, sunlight splashing off its windshield.

…Then, with his third rotation complete, he drops his arms.

The ball smacks the asphalt and the basketball game starts behind him as Flint strolls off the court. He steps onto the grass, where he always turns left.

Always counterclockwise.

…He calculates: an unfamiliar car, arriving at this particular hour, on this particular day . . . It can only be the new barber.

This might be the perfect day for a haircut.

I’m sure you can guess things don’t go well for those in Flint’s way after that. We switch back to Reeve LeClaire, a happy 20-something college student with a new name and a new life. When she learns her captor is free again, her life implodes, journalists breaking through her new identity. I liked Reeve. She’s still dealing with her trauma, but she’s healthy and has a strong network supporting her. She also got a lot of moxie. Feeling a sense of duty to stop her captor before he can ruin another life, Reeve leaves the safety of California and her new identity to step back into a nightmare.

Though the chapters don’t alternate point-of-view in set patterns, I enjoyed the sort of cat-and-mouse game it set up, with Flint planning ahead and Reeve following her instincts to predict his next move. I’m certain I wouldn’t be half so brave as Reeve, but she tries her best to help without getting roped back in and putting herself directly in the line of fire. Unfortunately, Reeve doesn’t have much say about her level of involvement. She returns to Seattle, right into the thick of things.

As she gets deeper into Flint’s mind in effort to track his movements, a shred of her survivor’s guilt haunts her.

In her dream, Reeve is late for a trip…

She makes it into town but discovers that a long funeral procession is blocking the street. She must wait in the crowd for it to pass. She stops, trying to be respectful, craning her neck to see. She is expecting a hearse to appear, but realizes there are no cars. Instead, throngs of people come marching toward her with their arms raised above their heads. She strains to see what’s happening.

Thin, naked bodies are being passed overhead.

She turns to run away but stumbles, falls, and is horrified to realize that she has tripped over a skinny girl sitting on the ground. Reeve blurts an apology, and as she starts to rise, sees that the girl’s legs are scarred and broken like twigs.

The girl glares into her face and spits out, “No one will help us!”

Reeve jolts awake with a shudder, the girl’s words ringing. She pulls the covers over her head, but the nightmare grips her like a chill. The bed turns cold. Sleep is hopeless.

I enjoyed the dichotomy between Reeve and Flint and the eerie similarities they share. It’s clear that they’ve made an impression on each other, and not just in the faded scars on Reeve’s back. In addition to the protagonist and antagonist, Norton treats us to the voices of Flint’s psychologist, Dr. Terrance Moody, and Agent Milo Bender, the original (now retired) agent on Reeve’s abduction case. There’s also a smattering of other characters thrown in, but each voice lends itself to the development of the story.

It’s fast-paced and extremely engrossing, and Norton does a remarkable job of balancing points-of-view. Just when you think you’ve collected all the pieces, another part of the puzzle rocks loose. There’s always something you didn’t expect, which, as a widely-read gal, I find refreshing. It kept me on my toes, that’s for sure.

It’s clear Norton did her research regarding missing persons and abduction cases, as well as the necessary research into a disorder like Flint’s, on top of his previous mental condition. The only thing I wasn’t thrilled about—and here I’m probably being nit-picky—was the continual use of select characters’ full names. It didn’t take me out of the story, it just struck me as an odd choice.

Unrelated to the fictional narrative, I truly appreciated that the end pages of the book listed several resources regarding missing persons, domestic violence, and human trafficking in order to provide the reader (or someone they know) a way to reach out for help.

One of the best things about What Doesnt Kill Her, aside from being a great and compelling story, is its ability to act as a standalone as well as a sequel. Honestly, if I didn’t know it was a follow-up, I would never have guessed. You can bet I’ll be checking out the first book in the series, The Edge of Normal, as well as Norton’s other titles. If you like psychological crime fiction, this one’s for you.

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Meghan Harker grew up in a small, awkwardly-named town in Georgia. She attended Brenau University, where she earned her BA in English and a minor in Graphic Design; she also attended the University of Cambridge, England, where she didn't quite master the perfect Oxbridge accent. She's an avid reader, writer, and fire spinner. She's currently working her first novel, a paranormal thriller. Visit her blog at ExquisitelyOdd.com.

Read all posts by Meghan Harker for Criminal Element.

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