Review: 'Survive the Night' is a fast-paced, twisty thriller

In “Survive the Night,” a depressed college student whose best friend has been killed by a serial killer accepts a ride home from a stranger

“Survive the Night,” by Riley Sager (Dutton)

Confused and depressed Charlie can’t bear to stay at Olyphant University anymore — not since her best friend was stabbed to death by a serial murderer known as the Campus Killer. So she drops out, packs up her stuff, kisses her college boyfriend goodbye, and puts a ride share request on the school bulletin board.

That leads her to Josh, a somewhat older guy who says he is going her way. Charlie is unsure if she can trust him, but her need to get away is so strong that she gets into his car for the long drive from New Jersey to Ohio.

For a thriller that starts off with two strikes against it, Riley Sager’s “Survive the Night” turns out to be a first-rate read. The strikes? First, Sager asks readers to believe that a young woman obsessed with her roommate’s murder would get into a car with a stranger. Second, a young woman stuck in a car with scary stranger is an overused trope of crime fiction. We’ve seen this movie before.

That may be so, Sager seems to be telling us, but you haven’t seen anybody do it like this.

The author (Riley Sager is a penname for New England author Todd Ritter) spins his yarn at a frantic pace. A sense of dread arrives the moment Charlie enters the car and never stops building. And the twists, few of which readers are likely to see coming, arrive in such abundance that they are head-spinning.

From moment to moment, neither Charlie nor the reader is ever sure how much danger she is in or whether Josh (if that is his real name), or perhaps someone else, is the person to be feared.

Compounding the problem is that Charlie, from whose point of view the story is told, has a tenuous grip on reality. A movie major, she is prone to sudden waking hallucinations that usually take the form of scenes from the noir films she loves. To stop them, she was prescribed some medication, but she stopped taking it. As a result, neither she nor the reader can be certain which events in the narrative are real.

The tale comes to a violent conclusion, or at least so it seemed. But then, with four final pages, Sager reveals a final surprise that is stunning yet somehow feels exactly right.

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Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, is the author of the Mulligan crime novels including “The Dread Line.”

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