Fresh Meat: What Doesn’t Kill You by Iris Johansen

What Doesn’t Kill You by Iris JohansenWhat Doesn’t Kill You by Iris Johansen is a thriller with a strong female protagonist (available April 17, 2012).

Lately I’ve read a number of novels with mothers as protagonists fiercely fighting for the lives of their children. Defending Jacob by William Landay and Come Home by Lisa Scottoline are recent examples; now there is What Doesn’t Kill You by Iris Johansen, familiar to most readers for her Eve Duncan novels. I don’t know if such novels are in anticipation of Mother’s Day or a nod to readers’ desires, but it’s always nice to see strong women, and Catherine Ling in What Doesn’t Kill You might be the most strong and fierce as she herself is a lethal weapon.

Johansen’s fans might remember Catherine Ling from Bonnie, the novel in which the remains of Eve Duncan’s long dead daughter are found. Johansen’s Eve Duncan novels had become so routine that I stopped reading them. However, after reading What Doesn’t Kill You, I will go back to read at least Bonnie as Catherine is involved.

When her mother died, Catherine was essentially abandoned on the streets of Hong Kong. She survived by becoming expert at getting information and then selling it. At fourteen, she came under the tutelage of the mysterious Hu Chang—a skilled surgeon and poisoner. Her ability to secure information was so good that a few years later the CIA recruited her. Catherine is described by Venable, CIA deputy director as “one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met. And definitely the most lethal.”

She is also a mother protective of her son. When he was just two years old, he was kidnapped by the nebulous Nardik of the Russian Mafia as an act of revenge and held in horribly dangerous places for nine years.

But although she has him back, Luke is resistant to Catherine’s mother love; he is not sure how he should feel about her. Home from her most recent mission, her first stop is to look in on her son.

“I’m awake, Catherine.” He turned on the light on the bedside table. He never called her mother, and she never pushed it.

Catherine is willing to undertake any assignment to keep her eleven-year-old son Luke safe. When Hu Chang creates something deadly and completely untraceable, Nardik uses Luke to try to get Hu Chang to create another dose of it.

At the start of the story, Hu Chang is being tortured for information about the poison and the CIA’s deputy director Venable and his team are trying to free him.

As Catherine is on the way to help with the mission she thinks:

Love made all the difference in the world, and it had been Hu Chang who had first made Catherine take those first steps toward trust and love. He had opened her eyes and pushed her gently forward. Dammit, she would not have anything happen to him. And she was suddenly feeling a wrenching ache that Luke, the child who was center of all that love, was not with her.

The story is a triangle with Hu Chang, Catherine, and Luke. Hu Chang is the linchpin as he knows both mother and son. And it is Hu Chang who gets Luke to see his mother with something other than detachment.

Hu Chang asks Luke if he resents Catherine for worrying about him.

“No she just doesn’t understand. She wants me to be what I’m not. I try to be what she wants me to be, but I can’t do it.”

“Then why bother to try?” Hu Chang frowned.

“That’s a stupid question. Because she wants it.”

It is only when Luke realizes that his mother might die during her current mission that he begins to show emotion.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and Catherine and Luke are much stronger for their brush with danger.

Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.

Read all of Susan Amper’s posts for Criminal Element.

See coverage of more new releases in our Fresh Meat series.


  1. bookcrazie

    I so agree about the Eve Duncan books. I think, though, that I will give this one a try. Thanks for the review.

  2. bitsy08

    Wow. I, too, agree about Iris Johansen’s books about Eve Duncan. I’ve long said that if I was Eve’s boyfriend, I’d hit the road and not give her my forwarding address. For that matter, if I was Eve Duncan, I’d probably kill myself. How much can one person take? I know I couldn’t take anymore and have long since quit reading her. I don’t think I can be convince to “give it another try.”

  3. s.amper

    *bitsy08–I’ve always wondered what Joe Quinn saw in Eve and agree he should have walked out long ago.Guess he’s a glutton for punishment and being ignored.

  4. DAKLS

    While the Eve Duncan books tend to get a bit formulaic, the recent ones w/ Jane and “Chasing the Night”, which introduces Catherine Ling and focuses on the recovery of her kidnapped son, are great. Can’t wait to read this new one about her.
    The trilogy about Bonnie – “Eve”, “Quinn”, and “Bonnie” – give insight about the reason for choices both Eve and Quinn have made and go back to the start of their relationship. They give more perspective on why in the world Quinn sticks around.

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