avatarM. J. Carson

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‘Killing Me’ is a Hoot of a Thriller

Michelle Gagnon grabs the reader by the unmentionables and never lets go

Cover image from Amazon.com

Book review:

Michelle Gagnon, Killing Me (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2023).

By accident! New Books shelf! Another huge find!

Don’t you love it when this happens?

And as I’ve said before, I’m fond of women PIs, and particularly delighted if they happen to like other women, you know, that way. There is a certain serendipity — I mean, considering the odds — when this becomes evident only part way through the book, rather than on the front flap or back cover.

Amber Jamison is not a PI, of course, so there’s that. This is a thriller with a mystery component, but no cops or private detectives. However, a spunkier, more resourceful heroine would be hard to find — unless you count the one who rescues her from a serial killer. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

We meet Amber as she is being bounced away in a white van, bound hand and foot, mouth covered with duct tape, a kidnap victim.

She is pissed off at herself for being so stupid. Amber is in the midst of remaking her life as a regular young person working toward a degree in psychology, living in a ‘crappy apartment’ on the edge of campus in Johnson City, Tennessee. From what previous character she is remaking herself we won’t discover for a while.

She has been following the news and knows there is some monster at work in the community, seizing women and murdering them. She is being careful.

Walking home, she passes a guy with a van. She notices him but then keeps going because he gets a vase of flowers out of the van, so, not a serial killer.

Then he literally butted me into the van. For a second, I thought it was an accident. I was opening my mouth to chew him out when the panel door slid shut and he was on me. I struggled, but within seconds he’d slapped a piece of duct tape across my mouth and jabbed me in the neck with a needle. When I came to, I was bound up like a sushi roll.

Killing Me, Chapter 1, “You Only Live Once”

Time to take a moment. This is largely a comic novel, with a frantic quest at the heart of it. But you and I and most readers know that the terror at the end of a victim’s life or the life-altering trauma that stays with survivors is not funny.

I lived for thirty years in a town that was victimized by a serial killer. He only struck once in our town, but that was enough to change pretty much everything. Even in a small city the six degrees of separation prevail. One of my kids went to prom with one of the murdered woman’s young relatives. It was impossible to pass the apartment complex where the abduction occurred without thinking of the friendly young woman, changing the bulbs in the street lamps, who just wanted to give someone directions.

The problem with loving the mystery/thriller genre of books and movies and television is confronting the issue of whether the evil that animates these exciting stories trivializes the pain and loss of ‘real life’ torture and murder.

As a writer I’ve been stuck for over a year on a plot that requires the ancillary death of several people. I care little about those victims — so little that I don’t even know who they are; they are interchangeable with anybody else who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — and I think that’s what’s hanging me up.

As a reader, and viewer, I do have to take a break every so often and breathe the air of a nonviolent world. (I know, I know — no such thing. But a stiff dose of The Big Bang Theory helps.) It takes a few beats, and then I’m back to the murder mysteries, but I’ve been thinking about this. Not enough to switch to romance, but — I’ve been thinking about this.

As I hinted above, Amber is rescued at the last minute from the table to which the, yes, serial killer has bound her. A small masked woman dressed in black bursts in, disables (actually, kills) the murderer with a cattle prod, frees Amber, and then does her best to shed Amber after telling her how to get back to town.

Amber is having none of it. And the quest begins.

Much of the subsequent action takes place in Las Vegas, in the seedy motels and parking lots of that most American of cities. Amber and her deeply unwilling partner in crime-solving meet an array of wonderful characters living on the fringes of the tackiest city in the world. Jessie, Dot, and Marcella dwell somewhere in the gray area of the law. The matronly Jessie knows people who can create new identities with a few faked pieces of paper. She owns a motel that has been gradually hipster-ifying, if not gentrifying.

The front office was twice the size of Dot’s, but even that wasn’t enough to contain Jessie; she wasn’t just a breath of fresh air, she was a goddamn gale-force wind. She was easily six feet tall and dressed in a flowing bohemian dress. By contrast, her face was done up in layers of severe goth makeup. Those two looks should have been raging against each other, but on her they were weirdly complementary. The tastefully potted succulents and framed Coachella posters positively paled in Jessie’s presence.

Killing Me, Chapter 8, “Don’t Bother to Knock”

Dot, another motel proprietor, has lived in Las Vegas all her life and knows enough people to set up a surveillance network to catch and try to immobilize the bad guy before he kills more women.

Marcella is a charming though drug-addicted waif who becomes Amber’s one-time lover.

As for the mysterious woman in black — she turns out to be Grace. One of the funniest parts of the book, and one that sets us up for the dénouement that I am not going to reveal, is that Grace strenuously resists any but the most terse, cursory contact with Amber. Grace is cold and driven, and lives on yogurt, soy milk, raw nuts, and root vegetables. Amber forces herself into the quest, though there are moments of doubt, both about her own abilities and about Grace’s shell of unshakeable competence.

There is the moment, for example, when Grace is stabbed and dumped at the door of Amber’s motel room.

“Let’s start with why you came back to my room. Did you track him there?”

Grace was frowning. “I was nowhere near your motel.”

“Yeah, you were. Bleeding on my doorstep.”

She closed her eyes. “Crap.”

“‘Crap’? That’s all you have to say?” I snapped.

“Shut up.” Grace brought a shaky hand to her temple. “I need to think.”

Dot had flushed bright red. “I don’t much care for your friend, Amber.”

“We’re not friends,” Grace and I said in unison. We glared at each other.

Killing Me, Chapter 10, “The Damned Don’t Cry”

The climax is satisfyingly edge-of-the-seat thrilling as Amber’s perceptions and our assumptions whipsaw back and forth with each new scary piece of evidence.

The author, Michelle Gagnon, hints at a sequel in her acknowledgements at the end of the book. She also more than hints at having overcome a dry spell in her writing career, and there does seem to have been an almost ten year gap between her previous novel and this one.

It happens.

Previously Gagnon wrote YA (young adult) thrillers. After I finished the current adult thriller, I moved on to her backlist and started listening to the audiobook version of Don’t Turn Around (2012). This novel is the second in the four-book PERSEFONE series, but stands alone. Utterly gripping, it brings together two alienated teenagers, both brilliant hackers, tenuously connected only through hacking sites online until….

My walks get longer and longer when I come across an audiobook this compelling. As with all excellent YA fiction, you don’t have to be under 21 to enjoy it or identify with its main characters.

Gagnon does adolescents well. It is heartening to read that she is completing a degree in clinical psychology and works with LGBTQ+ kids as part of her training. I’m hoping that she keeps pursuing both careers, so we can all benefit from her literary talent even if we don’t land in her client chair.

May it be so!

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Mystery Thriller
Thriller
Book Review
Las Vegas
Crime Fiction
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