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Never Look Back


Never Look Back

During the brief period between late December 1957 and early January 1958, 19-year-old Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, were the perpetrators of a murder spree that left 11 people dead in Nebraska and Wyoming. If the names or killings sound familiar, they should. These crimes were the subject of a classic Terrence Malick film, Badlands, and the basis for the song “Nebraska” on Bruce Springsteen's famous album of the same name.

I bring this up because mystery/thriller novelist Alison Gaylin has taken a big risk with her latest release, NEVER LOOK BACK. Following fictional murders that were inspired by Starkweather-Fugate, she combines podcasts, a series of old letters by one of the young killers, and some intense thriller writing to step back into the 1970s and revisit the killing spree known as the Inland Empire murders. I'm happy to say that this gamble has paid off --- in a big way. In fact, this might be Gaylin's most interesting novel to date.

"This stand-alone title is sure to be a triumph for Gaylin, and deservedly so --- this is what terrific mystery/thriller writing is all about."

Inland Empire is the nickname for a metropolitan area just south of Los Angeles, California. The killers were also two teenagers, April Cooper and Gabriel LeRoy. The book is told from the perspective of a young man named Quentin Garrison, who runs a true-crime podcast. In this case, he has a far more personal interest in drudging up this old crime spree. Gaylin also has sprinkled in a series of letters that a young April wrote to her “future” daughter. They are filled with innocence and whimsy --- that is, until Gabriel comes into her life.

April and Gabriel go on their now-infamous killing spree, which starts and ends fast, each of them perishing in a fire. Supposedly. The letters that open the novel quickly jump to Quentin, one of the narrators. The first interview we see from his podcast is between himself and Reg Sharkey, who watched his four-year-old daughter get gunned down as one of the victims of the Inland Empire rampage. The discussion ends with an argument as you realize that Reg is Quentin's grandfather. Their feelings are quite ironic as the title of the podcast is “Closure.”

Quentin is a driven young man, most especially due to the fact that he receives a message and video from George Pollard, who claims that April is still alive. Thus, we get the mission that follows for Quentin. The letters from April continue throughout the novel, and we begin to see how the impressionable young girl could get tempted by evil. We also are provided with another narrator, Robin Diamond, a New York City film columnist who is about to have the story of her life hit tragically close to home. Things are all tied together when Quentin meets with Robin's parents at their Westchester, NY home. Only a few hours later, Mitchell and Renee Bloom --- Robin's parents --- are victimized by what appears to be a home invasion. Both are shot, and Mitchell does not survive.

Robin finds her world turned upside down. Many questions haunt her in the wake of this tragedy: What did Quentin want with her parents? Is he the most likely suspect, as the police claim? Who is the mysterious woman named Nicola, or “CoCo,” who turns up at her father's funeral claiming to be an old friend of Renee? And the biggest question of all: Are either Renee or Nicola the infamous April Cooper?

Gaylin has so much fun toying with readers as these and many other questions will keep you guessing right through to the finale. NEVER LOOK BACK is a novel of secrets, family ties and the old adage that you can never really know absolutely everything about someone, even those you love dearly. This stand-alone title is sure to be a triumph for Gaylin, and deservedly so --- this is what terrific mystery/thriller writing is all about.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on August 2, 2019

Never Look Back
by Alison Gaylin