The missing stay missing, so they can’t report back, Lori Rader-Day writes on the first page of her excellent fifth novel, The Lucky One. And then she proceeds to report back for the missing, across 377 pages of intricately woven suspense.
The Lucky One is very much a novel of contemporary concerns, and even contemporary style, using a technique that splices the virtual world and the human into a single strand, which is the way we all experience our lives these days. The blend of anonymous internet trolls and real-life characters works to bring an added unease to the pages, with added layers of suspicion. The novel turns an unblinking gaze on the true-crime genre, leaving the reader with some curiosity as to how Rader-Day feels about the wildly popular documentaries, podcasts, and social media madness devoted to unsolved crimes. Is that trend indicative of genuine sympathy, or perverse car-wreck watching? Is it a desire to vaccinate ourselves against tragedy by inhaling just a little bit of an active dose? Or is the obsession with online sleuthing at best a soulless spectator sport and at worst a breeding ground for more darkness? Clear answers aren’t offered, and they shouldn’t be; Rader-Day understands that the best fiction is capable of inhabiting multiple realities at once, just like real life. Her characters, just like real people, are messy.
Her plot never is.
We’re introduced to two adult protagonists who had childhood traumas as kidnapping victims, but with two very different experiences. Alice Fine, a native Hoosier who was kidnapped in a small town, was recovered by her policeman father within 24 hours. Alice is nevertheless haunted by the crime as an adult, spending hours on a web site called The Doe Pages, playing a role that many readers might relate to Michelle McNamara’s existence in the opening of her wonderful and tragic posthumous bestseller, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.
Merrily Cruz – “a collection of parts that wouldn’t come together” – has had an altogether different journey, but when the paths of the two women intersect, the tension reaches a high point that Rader-Day manages to sustain for the long haul, juggling the two points of view with aplomb while utilizing online chatroom dialogue to build menace. She also renders the setting beautifully, particularly with Chicago sequences and the fictional town of Port Beth, Indiana, which rang true to this Hoosier reader. Port Beth is small-town Midwest, yes, but it also reads like The Region. Bucolic flyover country it is not. I appreciate that layer of noir realism from Rader-Day, a former Ball State student. Port Beth is only a cozy town on the surface.
And cozy, this book is not. I loved the grit of the story, the emotional realism, and the attention to line-by-line detail. Rader-Day doesn’t get enough credit for these elements of her work, in my opinion; much attention is paid to her plotting skill and too little to the writing. The black wings that flutter throughout this novel – sometimes figurative, sometimes literal, always at the right time – are symbolic of the quiet power of her prose. She can conjure a laugh out of the darkness or haunt you with a memory. Merrily’s point of view is a pulse of hardboiled confidence, and her quiet power builds beautifully throughout the novel. It’s no spoiler to tell you that when leering men on the internet tell Merrily that she has “legs for miles” she will use them soon enough – and leave some blood on the ground before its done. The word victim might have applied to Merrily once upon a time, but it certainly doesn’t define her.
Alice’s story carries much of the mystery weight, although she’ll likely be a harder character for the reader to connect with immediately, a problem created only by Merrily’s action set against Alice’s early hesitation and passivity. But this contrast is by design, and the reader is richly rewarded by the dual-thread approach.
A particularly skillful scene is in our introduction to Merrily’s side-job on the darker side of the internet. While Merrily prepares for a queasy but all-too-real online video exchange for some desperately needed cash, our victim-defense instincts move to High Alert…and Merrily adjusts the camera framing to make her look “small and defenseless, something the guys might want to protect.” Her character is exactly where it should be: subverting reader expectations. Crime fiction triumphs when the world is shown in shades of gray, when traditional victim/predator narratives are given nuance, and the writer’s voice is original. With The Lucky One, Lori Rader-Day firmly establishes her name as one of crime fiction’s most exciting and expert practitioners.
Michael Koryta is the New York Times-bestselling author of 14 novels, a novella, and multiple short stories. His work has been praised by Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Lisa Unger, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Daniel Woodrell, and Sandra Brown among many others, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. His books have won or been nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Edgar® Award, Shamus Award, Barry Award, Quill Award, International Thriller Writers Award, and the Golden Dagger. They’ve been selected as “best books of the year” by publications as diverse as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Amazon.com, O the Oprah Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, People, Reader’s Digest, iBooks, and Kirkus Reviews.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.