Written by Lisa Lutz — Lisa Lutz is the author of The Spellman Chronicles, a series with six entries so far about the comic adventures of a dysfunctional family of private investigators. The Passenger, billed as a dark psychological thriller in the vein of Gone Girl, therefore represents something of a departure for the author. There has been significant buzz about this novel, with no less an author than Megan Abbott giving it high praise in advance of publication.
The Passenger begins dramatically in the aftermath of a death. Tanya Dubois discovers her husband, Frank, dead at the bottom of the stairs. Narrating first person, she tells us that his death is a tragic accident, and not the result of foul play. Why then does she not report it? Then she clears out her bank account, dyes her hair to change her appearance and goes on the run.
Tanya quickly becomes the classic unreliable narrator. How much of what she tells us can we believe? Is she a murderer or is there another reason behind her actions? Perhaps she herself is the victim of something from her past that has compromised her? It is a great start to the story, and this mystery drives the book forward.
Lutz is fantastic when it comes to tantalising us with small details about Tanya’s marriage, and her past, which only serve to deepen our doubts. Tanya has been having an affair with her chiropractor, and she considered her marriage to Frank to be one of convenience only. By the end of the first chapter she has even blackmailed somebody. Her flight takes her from Illinois to Nebraska where she makes the first of several changes of identity. In a nice touch, the book isn’t only split into chapters, it’s split into sections based on Tanya’s current alias.
Lutz establishes a pattern of behaviour for her character. She criss-crosses the country, changing identities wherever possible, never staying in the same spot for too long, always on edge, waiting for that knock on the door which would signal the police, or perhaps her past, catching up with her. She is careful about getting close to anybody, paranoid that there is a nationwide manhunt for her.
In Austin, she meets a barmaid called Blue, because of her piercing eyes, who recognises straight away that Tanya is not who she says she is. But Blue is not interested in turning her in, because Blue herself is on the run, fleeing from an abusive husband. The two women agree to meet after Blue’s bar closes for the night, but are abducted by two men before they can begin to confide properly in one another. When an opportunity for escape arises after a car crash, Tanya professes to be shocked when Blue ruthlessly shoots the two men, but again Lutz writes the scene so well we are never really sure if we can believe her, or if it was simply the case that Blue beat her to the punch.
So far so good, but Lutz takes her first miss-step by introducing correspondences between people called Ryan and Jo, which appears at the end of each chapter. The pair discuss an incident from the past.While the exact details are kept a mystery until the finale, it becomes apparent that Tanya is really Jo, and that she is more sinned against than sinner.
It is about half way through the book that any doubts about Tanya’s innocence or guilt are resolved, and the story moves away from its noir-like beginning to become a more straight forward thriller. It seems as if the author lost her nerve towards the end and that’s a real pity. None the less, the action-packed finale is handled competently enough, even if the inclusion of a home-grown terrorist subplot seems unnecessary…
CFL Rating: 3 Stars