ALWAYS WATCHING is Chevy Stevens’s third stand-alone novel, though there is a tenuous connection that cleverly links all three. More on that in a moment. This latest work is somewhat different from its predecessors in both pacing and tone. While the first two books presented a protagonist-in-peril situation fairly early on in the proceedings, ALWAYS WATCHING is a bit more nuanced, wherein the events of the past slowly but inexorably intrude into the present with unexpected and dangerous results.
Nadine Lavoie is a psychiatrist who treated the protagonists featured in STILL MISSING and NEVER KNOWING. As the third book begins, Nadine is employed in the lockdown ward of a psychiatric hospital; as is frequently the case with those in the “helping” occupations, Nadine has issues of her own. Tragically widowed and estranged from her drug-addicted adult daughter, she also has the repercussions of an extremely unstable and troubled childhood with which to deal. Her early experiences come roaring back to the forefront of her consciousness when she is assigned to treat a new patient named Heather Simeon following a suicide attempt.
"While Stevens’s first two novels presented a protagonist-in-peril situation fairly early on in the proceedings, ALWAYS WATCHING is a bit more nuanced, wherein the events of the past slowly but inexorably intrude into the present with unexpected and dangerous results."
Now a patient in the hospital’s psychiatric care unit, Heather, with Nadine’s prompting, reveals that she and her husband have recently left a New Age-type community with a charismatic but controlling leader. Nadine is horrified to learn that Aaron Quinn, the leader of the community, is the same man who led a back-to-nature cult commune to which her mother fled with Nadine and her brother in tow in an effort to escape the violent mood swings of Nadine’s father. The knowledge that Aaron is still utilizing his forceful personality to control others causes Nadine a great deal of distress, which in turn unleashes memories she has been suppressing for far too long. The narrative alternates between Nadine’s memories of her time with Aaron’s cult and the present. When Heather falls victim to a tragic event, Nadine abandons the limits of professional duties and begins a journey that is short geographically but nonetheless takes her to her past.
Determined to confront the childhood demons that have affected her for decades --- some without her knowledge --- Nadine soon finds to her horror that what she holds most dear is in the grip of what she fears most, and that it will take all of her professional skills and personal strength and courage to save herself and at least one other.
ALWAYS WATCHING somewhat defies the conventional wisdom that thrillers must always begin with a major event within the first few pages in order to hold reader interest. Stevens takes some time setting up the dominoes of her story, but the narrative remains compelling from beginning to end without flagging, even if events are somewhat slow-going, particularly within the first third of the book. However, Stevens demonstrates a level of skill craft that exceeds the quantity of her output thus far, and, as a result, this change of pace is ultimately anything but disappointing.
The common link among these three novels is also a nice touch, which establishes a relationship among the works without requiring that they be read in any particular order. Those who have picked up a Chevy Stevens title at an earlier stage will discover her versatility and will be impressed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 21, 2013