The One That Got Away

3 Mins read

Written by Joe Clifford — Joe Clifford has an innovative premise for this crime thriller about what turned out to be the last victim of a serial killer who plagued a dreary upstate New York town called Reine. Alex Salerno was 17 when she was kidnapped a dozen years before the story begins, but at the last minute she was rescued and the murderer brought to justice. The town celebrated her and the end of its reign of terror for only a short while until another girl, Kira Shanks, disappeared, apparently murdered.

Now Alex has made a rare trip back to Reine because a reporter says he wants to hear her story. This is the first time in years anyone has shown a flicker of interest in her, a person probably no one would remember at all if she hadn’t been targeted by a murderer. But Alex wants to believe this story will benefit her. Maybe the reporter will pay for it, and she needs the cash.

Late one October day, Alex sits on a bench on the campus of the local private university, smoking her Parliaments, waiting. When the reporter arrives, she realises she’s been snookered again. He’s no reporter, just a journalism student needing dirt for a class project that might – just might – become a story for the college newspaper.

The student takes hardly a moment before bringing up the name Sean Riley, the detective who rescued Alex from that basement bunker, starving, dehydrated, terrified. Riley was the one bright spot in that time, the one person who could evoke her tender feelings. And did. Too bad the affair between a detective and a 17-year-old victim, a detective who was married with a baby, could only end badly. It was a long time ago, and it still hurts.

The police identified who took Kira Shanks, too, a mentally challenged young man named Benny Brudzienski. When word got out he was implicated, he was badly beaten and has spent the years since in a mental hospital, unable to speak. In that state, he will never go to trial.

The return to Reine brings up many feelings and associations Alex has tried to forget, and author Clifford does a good job describing the dismal town. For the most part, the town and her connection to it are attenuated and cold. She pretends – to herself, even – that she’s helping the student with his story and visits Benny Brudzienski in the mental hospital. Something in his eyes suggests more going on inside his brain than people think, convincing her to try to find out what really happened to Kira.

Meanwhile, of course, plenty of people want her to leave it alone and get in her way. Someone is following her. When she tries to score some drugs, she is violently attacked. Riley resurfaces. Because their past relationship is never far from the mind of either one, they teeter between attraction and hostility.

Clifford plausibly describes Alex’s initial feelings, but never lets her develop further, replaying the same emotional notes. She’s unpleasant and hostile in her dealings with people and not likeable. In her daily life, she works in a Manhattan bar, so it’s puzzling her people-skills are so weak and that anyone would cooperate with her pseudo-investigation. Yet Alex has caught the eye of one young man who seems determined to find a soft spot in her shell.

Occasionally, Clifford constructs a too-obvious and unnecessary cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter, when what’s coming follows the predictable plotting of thrillers – the false starts, the red herrings, the apparent threats that evaporate, the climactic confrontation.

While most of the story is told from Alex’s point of view, occasional chapters are from Bennie’s. He’s meant to be smarter and more aware than people think he is, but still somewhat dim. These chapters don’t ring true, and are uneven both in the kinds of thoughts and memories Bennie seems likely to have and in the sophistication with which he expresses them.

The unwanted role of victim was Alex Salerno’s only and brief claim to fame. You can only hope her most recent experience in her hometown will finally let her move past that.

For another book about a girl who survives a serial killer try Final Girls by Riley Sager.

Down & Out Books

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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