I received an advance reader copy of this novel from the folks at Hard Case Crime in exchange for an honest review.
Jason Starr’s male characters want you to know that they’re good guys. Really, they are. They might do a couple of not so nice things, like murder and thievery. But really, they’re good guys. They just happen to be in bad circumstances. It’s not they’re fault. Ok, maybe it is a little. But still, they’re good…hey, wait, where are you going?
Starr wasn’t one of my favorite writers when I began diving into his catalogue; I found his books to be too unsettling. I don’t know if my tastes adjusted or if I just came to appreciate his work more but now I look forward to reading him, even if I need to give my brain a shower when I’m done.
This is a kind of multiverse story where a man named Steven gets seriously (perhaps mortally?) wounded, falls down a rabbit hole and comes out on the other end in a parallel universe where his life is different in subtle but critical ways. His wife acts different, he parents a daughter instead of being childless, and he’s having multiple affairs he wasn’t having in his previous life.
(An aside but an important one: I want to live in this man’s version of the United States. Al Gore was President, 9/11 and the coronavirus both didn’t happen, the fiscal crisis was in 2015 instead of 2008 but isn’t as bad as that year’s recession, Donald Trump never becomes President and is in jail. And since 9/11 didn’t happen, the Twin Towers exist. The scene where Steven is just wandering around the old World Trade Center in a state of awe felt like a love letter to their existence. I’ve read so many stories where the Towers coming down was a plot point; here, it just felt nice for them to be again. The scene lasts 4-5 pages and they’re 4-5 of the best pages I’ve read in 2022.)
In previous works, Starr used noir tropes effectively to show how thin the line is between what’s considered “good” and “bad” behavior; especially how men will manipulate situations to justify them. Here he does it with time travel and does it well. Steven seems like a good enough guy when he falls into the other universe but he does terrible things. On top of it, in the other universe, he’s defending a serial killer on trial. In the alternate one, he’s not but still runs into the guy, trying to prove he’s a killer. What’s good, right, moral, etc. become interchangeable at Steven’s whims.
If you’re expecting a deep dive Blake Crouch-esque sci-fi story, you’ll be disappointed. This is the kind of crime tale Starr tells, only instead of amnesia, the man has a previous life in a different version of this universe. Slowly but surely, it’s revealed that he’s a criminal, caught in troublesome circumstances. How he resolves these circumstances: clinging to his past life while realizing his present one lives “multiple lives” in the affairs he has, is pure crime/bleak comedy gold. And the end is deliciously noir. Jason Starr is a star. This is a book you should check out.