The Passenger, by Lisa Lutz

thepassengerLisa Lutz is best known for her series, The Spellman Files, which I confess I have not read or watched on television. I came to this stand-alone story brand new, and can tell you that it’s fresh and original, a real kick in the pants. Thank you Simon and Schuster, and thank you too, Net Galley, for the DRC. I picked this thing up and then hardly put it down, but my review had to wait awhile in order to be within the courtesy-window of no more than three months from publication. And it gave me some time to think.

Here’s our premise: Tanya Pitts is a married woman until her husband, Frank, falls down the stairs and dies, and then she is a widow. We don’t know if he had a heart attack; if he tripped and hit his head or broke his neck; all we know is that Tanya is innocent of killing him. Yet instead of staying put, phoning 911, and sitting back to collect the life insurance and either keep the house or sell it, she chooses to run. Now why would she do such a thing?

Soon we learn a little more. The problem is that Tanya is not Tanya. She won’t stand up to a thorough vetting, which the police are likely to pursue as due diligence. Soon she becomes Amelia, but that’s not who she is either. We get tantalizing little bursts of memory and the occasional unwise-but-addictive e-mail sent to someone from her real life. As the story progresses, we get the sense that she must have done something pretty horrific in order to be so obsessively unknowable, so carefully, fastidiously disguised.

There were several times when I thought the protagonist did things that were stupid for a woman on the run, but we learn, over the course of time, just how young she really is. By the end of the story, her various dumb mistakes make total sense, because very young people, especially when tossed out into the breeze without much of a parachute, do make a lot of mistakes they won’t repeat when they are older and smarter.

While she is trying to bury herself as Amelia Keen, former-Tanya meets a barkeep who goes by “Blue”. Blue takes her in for awhile; it seems Blue has a secret or two of her own. This section absolutely crackles, and is reminiscent of Thelma and Louise for a time. When she is cornered by a terrifying man referred to as “The Accountant”, a guy with a gun, an equally nasty partner, and a cold hard gaze, Blue comes to the rescue and she wants answers in exchange.

“’You have a few enemies, don’t you?’
‘Guess so.’
‘Considering I just committed a double murder for you, I think an explanation is due.’

Blue gives her a new identity and sends her packing, and so Amelia-now-Debra is on her own again. The plotting is so taut in places that in one place, when she jerks her car back onto the switchback mountain road just before it goes over a cliff, my notes to myself simply say, “Shit!”

The quality of the novel is a trifle uneven, and this is why the fifth star, which looked like a slam-dunk for the first third of the story, is denied. But I loved the start, and I loved the ending. In fact, I loved almost all of it. There were some logistical glitches in the Wyoming portion of the story, in particular with regard to the private school where she passes herself off as a teacher for a time that makes a portion of the story just not work. It’s the writer’s misfortune, perhaps, to be reviewed by a teacher, but there are so many of us out here, and we sure do read.

That said, our protagonist has a tendency to shift her location quickly, and so before long, this problematic passage is in her rearview mirror, like just about everything else. And in no time, the author is back on rock-solid ground.

The ending left me with my jaw on the floor, and it will probably do the same for you. When this nifty psychological thriller hits the shelves March 1, you will want to have your copy already ordered. What a great way to forget the nasty chill of late winter.

Do it.

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