If I Die Tonight by Alison Gaylin is an absorbing, addictive tale of psychological suspense in which a seemingly open-and-shut police case with a clear-cut hero and villain turns out to be anything but simple (available March 6, 2018).
USA Today and international bestselling author Alison Gaylin has been steadily on the rise since ditching facts for fiction with 2005’s Hide Your Eyes; nine books have followed. Her last standalone novel of psychological suspense, What Remains of Me (2016), won the RT Seal of Excellence; she’s also a recipient of the Shamus and RT Reviewers Choice Awards and has been nominated for the Edgar three times as well as the Anthony, ITW Thriller, and Strand Book Awards. Gaylin’s newest, If I Die Tonight, seems destined to continue that upward trajectory.
The story opens with a prologue presented in the form of a Facebook status update. Though posted on Jacqueline (“Jackie”) Merrick Reed’s page, the message is actually written by her eldest son, 17-year-old Wade—and he prefaces it with a dire prediction: “By the time you read this, I’ll be dead.”
But the real story begins five days earlier when divorcee Jackie is jolted awake during the night only to discover that Wade has snuck out of the house to smoke a cigarette. Though disapproving of this habit (among other of her son’s nocturnal proclivities), she refrains from making an issue of it; their relationship is already strained.
Instead, Jackie heads back to bed to ponder just what’s become of Wade. It’s a decision she’ll soon regret, as the next day brings news that a local teen, Liam Miller—one of Wade’s classmates and a former Little League teammate—was run over and critically injured while attempting to thwart a carjacking. The perpetrator escaped, and Jackie has the beginnings of a nagging doubt about just what else her son may have been up to under cover of darkness.
When Jackie visits the hospital to commune with the other well-wishers, she’s surprised to learn that Wade has already been there—and that her friend and co-worker Helen Davies had to escort him out to quell escalating tensions. Things get progressively worse when Liam succumbs to his injuries; the resulting grief and rage turn toxic, and Wade—sensitive yet surly and harboring some secret heartbreak—bears the brunt of his peers’ wrath.
While Jackie steadfastly defends him, she recognizes that his behavior has been both erratic and suspicious. Further, she can’t account for his whereabouts at the time of the incident. Compounding her unease is the fact that her younger son, Connor, is acting out of sorts, too, and may be covering for his brother—though his sense of loyalty is not without limits.
While the student body seems to have indicted Wade, the authorities have their own suspicions—and their collective eye first focuses on Aimee En. The victim of the alleged carjacking, Aimee was once a pop darling of the ‘80s who has since faded into relative obscurity. It was after playing a dingy club that she claims a teenager stole her beloved car—an emerald-green 1973 Jaguar—and then ran Liam down when making his escape. But her conflicting statements and fitful demeanor cast doubt on that story. Still, the tragedy has thrust her back into the spotlight, and she intends to stay there.
An unlikely bond with Liam Miller’s mother results, serving to solidify her newfound sympathetic status; this redemptive journey is tainted by skepticism, though. After all, one person’s tragedy is another’s triumph, and celebrities capitalizing on misfortune for personal gain is not uncommon.
The narrative unravels through alternating perspectives; these include Jackie, Wade, Connor, and Amy, as well as Pearl Maze—a young police officer with her own secrets to keep. In addition to keeping readers off balance, Gaylin uses this approach to illustrate how human frailties are compounded by grief and how perceptions often serve to (further) convolute reality.
Particularly resonant is the dynamic between Jackie and Wade, which is illustrative of how children can become strangers to their own parents—and how their stubborn refusal to be transparent only perpetuates this cycle. Connor, on the other hand, represents the collateral damage, as he is rendered near-insignificant by the all-consuming nature of everybody else’s drama. Though the Reeds’ circumstances are extreme, it’s a powerful portrayal of a broken family in crisis.
Gaylin also puts the community at large under the microscope, showing the ripple effects of a trigger event. There’s pressure on the authorities to close the case at all costs; there’s pressure on the media to break news; there’s pressure on the survivors to lionize Liam’s memory. With all these forces at play, a point of combustion is inevitable—and it’s the proliferation of social media that fans the flames. Mobile devices and the screens that people hide behind foster a sense of bravado while also breeding impulsivity. Consequently, gossip becomes gospel, and whatever truth lies between is often lost. Wade wouldn’t be the first casualty of just such a digital deluge.
If I Die Tonight is a triumph of sophisticated, stylized storytelling. Though the fractured family is an age-old write of passage, Gaylin—whose finger always seems to be on the pulse of societal stressors—infuses the topic with absolute immediacy. Absorbing characters, myriad plot twists, and pertinent themes elevate this work beyond genre confines, which is altogether fitting of an author who continues to reach new heights.
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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.