Every aspiring writer is lectured, make the hero/heroine likeable. Not necessarily angelic, but likeable. Some anti-hero novels have sold well. Like Butch Cassidy, the protagonist may be a crook but is still the kind of guy you would want to have a drink with.
But all the characters despicable? Samantha Downing accomplishes that in He Started It (Berkley $17). I picked it up in an airport, wanting an airplane read—nothing elaborate, enough to take my mind away from the tedium of flying with a mask on. And breathing my own CO2.
Right off the bat, the narrator, Beth tells us she’s a bad person, for having cheated on her husband. Such a revelation is not conclusive, though. Perhaps hubby is cold, thoughtless, even abusive. Maybe he’s cheating too. Alas no. She just wanted to get laid by the hunky male stripper at a bachelorette party. But infidelity is the least of Beth’s issues.
Her little sister, Portia, is a nude dancer and kleptomaniac. The older brother of this threesome, Eddie, is a superficial charmer, procuring freebies from the unsuspecting. He doesn’t like his new wife, who simply seems dull, not vicious. Beth and her brother don’t like each other’s spouses or their own for that matter. Nobody likes anybody, though Beth’s hubby at least knows how to fix cars, a handy skill when some of the mishaps occur.
The story is told in the present along with a long-running description of prior family catastrophes. And they are true catastrophes. The five are on a long cross-country trip that is supposedly in memory of the sibling’s dead grandfather. He’s left them millions on condition that they reprise a trip they took with him as children, an expedition where they drugged the poor man and seized the car. As part of the family makeup, the grandfather was no saint either, supposedly having abused grandmother.
Early on we learn that there was another kid, an older sister, who was on the first trip as a teenager, though not on this sojourn. Beth constantly teases us with the mystery of what happened to her. Ephemeral sightings stir the reader’s curiosity and there’s a symbolic visit to a ghost town where we get a clue about the missing girl.
The tour plods along from Georgia to the west coast. If Samantha had taken the time to look at an atlas while writing she would have noticed that no Interstate crosses the Oklahoma panhandle. Nor does the Oklahoma Highway Patrol ride motorcycles. A minor point perhaps, but as Beth narrates, the story becomes ever more bizarre. I stayed with it out of wonder. How could people be so awful? Where is this bizarre quest story headed?
Give Downing credit. The tale ends with the unexpected. Nobody, absolutely nobody will guess it, though there’s a huge plot hole I won’t divulge. And she did great job getting into Beth’s scrambled brain. The other characters are memorable, chiefly for their awfulness, though you will want to cast them from your brain as soon as possible before they become like that singing commercial you can’t get out of your head.
If you’re facing a long flight, grab it from the airport bookstore. It’s a B- but an A for originality.
Steve E Clark as seen in the New York Times is Author of Justice Is for the Lonely and Justice Is for the Deserving, Kristen Kerry Novels Of Suspense. Steve is a 2017 NY Big Book Award winner and a 2018 Independent Book Awards recepient. You can purchase his books via https://steveclarkauthor.com/buy-the-book/ or request it at your local book store. Want to know more about Steve Clark, read more reviews or speak directly with Steve? Learn more about Steve at SteveClarkAuthor.com