Best-selling suspense thriller author Harlan Coben once said in an interview that when he writes books, “It’s a placid pool […] you drop a pebble in there and boom, it’s what you can make it. It’s not choppy waters, it’s that placid pool, and the small thing that can ripple.”
This is exactly what happens in the twisty psychological suspense thriller If I Die Tonight by USA Today best-selling author Alison Gaylin. One tragic event on a stormy night rocks an entire small-town community. Like water circling a drain, it sucks everyone down, both the innocent and the guilty. But is anyone really innocent? Aren’t we all trying to hide something?
The book opens with a suicide note from 17-year-old Wade Reed on his mother’s Facebook page:
“By the time you read this, I will be dead.”
The Facebook post generates over a thousand likes.
We are then taken back five days earlier. A violent late-night carjacking of has-been ’80s pop star Aimee En’s vintage Jaguar leaves Liam Miller, the high school football star, near death after bravely running to her aid, only to be run over by the thief. The small Hudson Valley town is stunned and immediately demands answers from the Havenkill Police Department. Fingers are pointed and the outcries turn increasingly louder as more details emerge about this shocking crime. The narrative unfolds through multiple perspectives, including those of Wade’s distraught mother, Jackie Reed; his loyal younger brother, Connor; an astute young police officer, Pearl Maze; and Aimee En.
Each character is richly developed. Jackie struggles as a single mother raising two boys. She trusts her sons and knows they’re good kids. But lately, it’s been more and more difficult not to succumb to the rumors that Wade, her eldest, was an integral part of that fateful night, especially when his behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Connor, Wade’s 13-year-old brother, is the collateral damage, as he wonders if helping his brother is turning him into an accomplice. Pearl, the young police officer, trusts her instincts, but when her own past refuses to stay buried, she fears she could end up veering in the wrong direction. Aimee En is the catalyst as the distraught car-jacking victim. Yet her story has too many holes not to raise suspicion. Was she a victim or is she too good at putting on a show?
If I Die Tonight is character-driven, more so than Gaylin’s previous works, including the unforgettable Edgar-nominated What Remains of Me, one of my favorites of 2016. If I Die Tonight isn’t a read-it-in-one-sitting type of book that one can breeze through. The world of these characters must first be clearly established, their pain and humanity allowed to slowly emerge. Their secrets are, after all, what propel the story forward. Twist after twist after twist is unleashed, hurtling toward the story’s climax, until the reader is left stunned that she didn’t see any of it coming. Paging through from the beginning, the clues are all there. They’re just expertly woven into the plot, hidden in plain sight. More discerning crime fiction readers may be able to guess at least one of the twists, but this by no means diminishes what proves to be a powerful and breathless finale.
In many of her thrillers, Gaylin shows an uncanny ability to tap into current societal pressures, and If I Die Tonight is no exception. The most prevalent theme here is the terrifying power of social media. A rumor can quickly become truth, especially in a small town, but on social media, it happens in an instant. It’s so easy to jump on the bandwagon, hurling accusations and feeding off each other’s lies as long as we’re cloaked in the obscurity and safety of our screens. What does “liking” someone’s suicide note on Facebook really mean? How do we decipher what is true and what is fiction? In our current environment of #fakenews and Twitter bots, this book couldn’t be more timely.
If I Die Tonight also looks at modern parenting in comparison to previous generations. Kids now are plugged in to their music, social media, and other aspects of their cell phones 24/7. It creates a very isolated generation, one that parents may struggle to connect with on a daily basis. Jackie comments in the very beginning of the book: “When did kids get to be so quiet? When she was their age […] Jackie clomped around in her Doc Martens and slammed doors. She’d blast her albums loud as they’d go — Violent Femmes and Siouxie and Scraping Foetus off the Wheel.”
As a Gen Xer, I can relate to Jackie’s trip down memory lane. I, too, blasted the likes of Siouxie, Depeche Mode, and Joy Division, an explosion of teenage rebellion that was familiar and expected. Not so with today’s kids.
They kept their music to themselves, kept everything to themselves […] They shut you out. Your children shut you out of their heads, their lives. And that was a form of rebellion so much more chilling than blasting music or yelling. They made it so you couldn’t know them anymore. They made it so you couldn’t help.
Gaylin also takes a hard look at celebrity status, something she also explored in What Remains of Me. First, we have Aimee En yearning for the limelight again. She manages to achieve it, benefiting from others’ suffering like a parasitic hanger-on. Then there is Liam Miller, the high school football-star-turned-saint. Townsfolk call him “brave, golden-hearted, and wise beyond his years,” an instant hero. Lastly, there is Wade Reed, thrust in the spotlight for wholly different, more insidious reasons. He’s the boogeyman every parent fears will be a bad influence on their children, the freak who sacrifices cats and worships Satan. He becomes a “celebrity” overnight thanks to the destructive combination of social media and nasty small-town gossip.
What should be noted is that despite the story’s multiple perspectives, the one that is glaringly absent is Wade’s. By omitting his point of view, the narrative thread becomes that much more powerful. There is nothing more inscrutable than the mind of a teenage boy, especially one who has something to hide. It’s this lack of access to Wade’s mind that especially endears us to his poor mother, Jackie, and her unwavering faith in her son’s innocence. How can she be so sure when everything points to his guilt? Is her absolute trust in her son merely blinding her from the awful truth? At a tense moment in the narrative, Jackie thinks in reference to her sons, “I used to know you guys so well I could read your thoughts, and now it’s as though every day, every minute even, I know you less. You’re turning into strangers. You’re turning into men.”
Gaylin is known for her slick and stylized thrillers like her award-winning Brenna Spector series and her standalones like Trashed, but If I Die Tonight has a slightly more sophisticated feel to it. It’s an addictive, absorbing read, but it’s what this book says about us that has the most lasting impact. We, as a society, are constantly striving to make sense of things. We like to establish order in life’s chaos. When we justify our lies in order to create truths — facilitated by social media, rumor mills, and fake news — every single one of us, unfortunately, must bear the consequences.
Sarah M. Chen is the author of Cleaning Up Finn.