Thriller Thursday Audio: He Started It by Samantha Downing
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Thriller, Suspense
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Penguin Audio (July 21, 2020)
Length: 9 hrs and 49 mins
Narrator: Karissa Vacker
Okay seriously, what the hell did I just read?! What the fucking fuck this book. Cue the fits of incoherent screaming and uncontrollable eye twitches.
Let me just start by saying how much I loved Samantha Downing’s first book. My Lovely Wife was pretty much everything you’d want a psychological thriller to be—bold, dark, intelligent, and completely addictive and unpredictable. I’m so pleased to say He Started It was much the same, though I might have liked it just a teensy tiny little wee bit less, and I’ll get to why in a moment, but it was still SO GOOD.
To start, if I could set the scene in a single sentence: family of assholes go on a road trip. Beth Morgan is our narrator telling the story, and she’s traveling cross-country in a rental with her older brother Eddie and little sister Portia, not because she really wants to, but because she has no choice—not if she wants a shot at inheriting a couple million dollars, anyway. Their grandfather has just died, leaving behind a substantial sum of money. As his sole remaining heirs, the Morgan siblings stand to become very rich, but only if they do exactly what is stipulated in old gramps’ will. The three of them must recreate the road trip he took them on twenty years ago, during that awful summer when their parents’ fighting got especially bad. Of course, there were four children back then, but eldest sister Nikki is no longer in the picture (the plot thickens) so it will just be Beth, Eddie, and Portia hitting every tourist trap and cheap motel they stopped at on their route from the east coast to the Pacific Ocean. Even grandpa’s along for the ride, in a box holding his ashes which will be scattered once they reach their destination.
Still, twenty years is a long time, and a lot has happened since the siblings were children. For one, they haven’t spoken to each other in years. Beth is also now married, and so is Eddie, and both their respective spouses have decided to tag along, much to the Morgans’ annoyance. It’s difficult to explain to outsiders why their grandfather has made them do this, not when they don’t really understand it themselves. All they know is what the lawyer told them, and their progress will be tracked by the GPS in the rental van provided them. There are no rules about bringing guests, just that the three of them have to finish the road trip, and they can’t end up in jail like their mother (and the plot thickens again!)
On her part, Beth just wants to get it all over with, so she can get her share of the money. She doesn’t want to spend a second longer with her jerk of a brother Eddie and his annoying new wife. Six years younger than Beth, her kleptomaniac stripper sister Portia is no picnic to be around either. Not too long into their trip though, the Morgans have an accident. A large black pickup truck nearly runs them off the road, and at first, they don’t think too much of it. But soon, as they zig-zag across states, there’s no mistaking it—the truck is following them, and with it, more unfortunate “accidents” aren’t far behind.
Aarrrgggh, I swear this is pure torture, because as much as I would love to talk about everything I loved about this book, practically any detail I could give beyond this point in the plot could lead to a potential spoiler, so I can’t. I just can’t. But holy hell, I simply could not tear myself away from this one. After all, dysfunctional families are one of my favorite tropes in thrillers, and you really can’t get more dysfunctional than the Morgans. I mean, spending time with family can be tough. Like Beth says, you hate them, but you also love them. But when you’re stuck with them on a road trip for weeks on end because there’s a disgusting amount of money on the line, you just gotta make it work, somehow. Plus, to their credit, they’ve got each other’s backs when it really counts. Assholes need to stick together, after all.
Bouncing back between the past and present, He Started It weaves together black comedy and hair-raising thrills as Beth chronicles their time on the road, comparing it to the experiences she and her siblings had with their grandfather twenty years ago. We know that Eddie and Portia are real pieces of work, but mark my words, Beth is no saint either. She’s an apathetic, manipulative, scheming liar, and all I’ll say is this: you take her at face value at your peril.
By now, you might be wondering, if I loved this book so much, why not five stars? Well, it’s because of the ending. To be honest, I’m not wild about it. It seemed too abrupt, leaving way too much hanging, unexplained. It’s the kind of ending you wish you could talk about with others, and in fact, one of the first things I did after finishing this novel was hit up Goodreads to see if there were any discussion threads on possible theories or anything I might have missed. Otherwise, it just felt like Downing couldn’t figure out how to tie everything up, so she gave up trying. The result was jarring enough that I docked a whole star.
Still, He Started It was a great read, which provided a special bonus too, because the novel took you to all these fascinating places across the United States—all of which are real places that the author researched, according to the afterword, with only a few minor tweaks to make the story work. The audiobook was also superbly done, with a fantastic performance by narrator Karissa Vacker whose voice and energy kept up with the whirlwind pace of the plot. All in all, I highly recommend this if you enjoy twisted, enthralling thrillers.