“If I Die Tonight” (Morrow), by Alison Gaylin
Crimes aren’t committed in a vacuum but have the potential to cause ripples throughout a community. And that community can quickly turn on one of its own, needing someone, or something, to blame. Those connections are the bedrock of Alison Gaylin’s superb standalone, “If I Die Tonight.”
Gaylin delves deep to explore her characters, who want more than what their lives have brought. It also succinctly touches on parental issues, teenage angst, loneliness, the seductiveness of fame and the pitfalls of when that acclaim is a thing of the past. Each plot point weaves perfectly for a poignant story strengthened by its attention to characters.
Single mother Jackie Reed is barely able to juggle all the aspects of her life, including her job as a realtor in the tightknit town of Havenkill, New York; her sons Wade, 17, and Connor, 13; and her own depression. Connor is smart, popular and always trying to make things easier for his mother. Wade, however, has been distant, holing up in his room, disappearing for hours and nearly ostracized from his classmates. Wade becomes the likely suspect when high school football star Liam Miller is left in a coma while trying to prevent a carjacking. Former pop star Amy Nathanson, who had one mega-hit as singer Aimee En during the 1980s, claims Liam was trying to protect her and keep her vintage Jaguar from being stolen. As the community reels from the crime, Havenkill police officer Pearl Maze sharpens her investigative skills, while dealing with her own dark side.
Gaylin ladles the poignant “If I Die Tonight” with surprises while never succumbing to the obvious or cliched. Each character is believable, and their flaws and fears add to their humanity. Wade’s isolation isn’t just a family matter; the suspicion that falls on him also affects Jackie, Connor and Noah, who is Connor’s best friend. The crisp dialogue and insightful look at life in a small town become fodder for the suspenseful story.
“If I Die Tonight” never falters in its excellent illustration of people on the edge, and it joins the ranks of those mysteries that will prove to be one of the best published in 2018.