The debut psychological thriller from Chevy Stevens, last year’s Still Missing, attracted a mix of raves and boos for the unflinching way it depicted female violence, but the sheer volume of attention lavished on it creates a tough act to follow. Unfortunately, her sophomore effort contains gaping fault lines where there were once mere cracks: what was easy to gloss over is now impossible to ignore.
Once again, Stevens offers up a nifty concept: what if you were an adopted child and found out your biological father was a serial killer? What if, moreover, your biological mother was the only target to escape his grasp? That is the scenario that shakes up 34-year-old Sara Gallagher, who is busy juggling wedding preparations, raising her six-year-old daughter, and negotiating fractious relationships with her taciturn adoptive father and smirking youngest sister. Her birth mother, who conceived Sara under the worst possible circumstances, rejects her attempts to connect, but Sara’s father, who is still at large, is all too eager to track her down.
Stevens is clearly aiming for hair-raising suspense, but she has too many strikes against her. The repetitive phone calls between murderous father and terrified daughter grow increasingly contrived. The descriptions of police procedure are poor (also a big weakness in Still Missing), and the dialogue teeters on the edge of absurdity. Sara relates her story to a psychiatrist – the same conceit Stevens employed in her first novel – but whereas the earlier book’s protagonist, a victim of terrible trauma, had a clear reason for visiting a shrink, Sara’s sessions appear more as shoehorned exposition than organic narrative. By the time the big twist emerges late in the novel, the level of reader investment has waned (this is also due in part to the plot twist’s strong resemblance to Still Missing’s final reveal.)
When a debut novel works, standards for the follow-up are high. My hope is that Stevens will try a fresh approach for her next book and remember that psychological thrills must be subtle and sneak under the reader’s skin to be effective.