READERS TELL ALL.
Now in the 21st century, we are allowed to begin a new canon, a crime canon for the 21st century. Assuming this is true, it's easy to place Alison Gaylin's What Remains of Me as the most significant and game-changing Hollywood novel in the crime genre, the definition of The Hollywood novel, The Hollywood novel all Hollywood novels will follow and try to beat. And likely the same can be true about Gaylin's last novel, the Edgar-winning If I Die Tonight, a book that has redefined how novels (and more specifically crime novels) approach technology, perhaps the most definitive tech-crime novel since Patricia Cornwell's, but benefiting from qualities only Gaylin can provide, an expert in humans, humanity, and empathy beyond all others.
The newest novel by Gaylin, Never Look Back, somehow combines the nostalgia of What Remains of Me (which, by the way, should have won the Edgar, but I won't argue that here) and the modernity of If I Die Tonight. Never Look Back screams love in the middle of the blackhole of noir and crime, the desperation and love and how they can mirror each other, or perhaps be the same thing. Gaylin rips emotions, memories, and truths from her characters only she can. She is a grand looker, someone who observes the world and draws from it every truth other people can't understand. You see a psychotic killer who pursues victims because of a dead sister, brother, friend, mother, or father? Gaylin sees a killer who is dark from the beginning, who discovers a darkness, who never forgets this darkness and is just ready to unravel it at the word "Go." Gaylin is an expert at understanding how anyone works, including so many people who aren't her. I admire the positive aspects of #OwnVoices, but to dismiss anyone advocating for writing and understanding voices outside oneself is criminal, especially when dealing with Gaylin, who happily flips between gay men and young women in love with gay men and women dealing with the tragedy of never knowing herself or her parents--so many people who aren't necessarily Gaylin, and yet she writes them as naturally as she might a diary entry. Only, with Gaylin, reading any of her books, we feel as if Gaylin understands these people better than she would her own diary entries. We never feel we get characters in Gaylin's novel. These are people trapped in pages. These are horrors not confined to black ink, as they do not simply stay on the page, but leap at you, grab you, choke you, make you scream. Gaylin is here to remind you of the utter love and brilliance of humanity, and also how destructive and vicious humans can be, and how far we go to get what we want. Gaylin knows people better than people know themselves. She pulls back their skin and reminds them of the tissue inside, the things they destroy with fast food and Red Bull and desire and loneliness.
Here's the thing. Gaylin may have, with Never Look Back, tapped into the biggest game-changer of a novel since Hitchcock's Psycho (note, I am referring to his filmic version, and not the novel or the remake) or Kevin Williamson and the late Wes Craven (RIP)'s Scream, the film to bring slashers back into fashion but also remind everyone that we are getting boring. The 90s were fairly stiff, books that could have remained the same outside a few, the exceptions being Donna Tartt's The Secret History, some claiming Patricia Cornwell's debut (although maybe we can beg to differ), and the welcome of a few great authors who would become greater, like the fabulous Laura Lippman, among others. Gaylin is now nodding to the entry of the 2020s, to a world where we may or may not be destroyed by Trump or find a hopefully happier future, but acknowledging that so many authors are doing the same thing. The Wife Who Got Away. The Woman Who Stabbed Herself with a Fork Because She Was So Fucking Tired of this Title. I Don't Trust My Husband Dear Fucking God. We Aren't Girls Anymore. Generic Title with Your Least Favorite Female Family Member. We Use Titles to Confine Women in Fiction. I'm fed up. Gaylin's fed up. So now maybe writers will up their game. They'll drop bombs like Gaylin does in this miracle of a novel. She switches between characters in a miraculous way, keeping the third person feeling like third person and never confusing or boring the reader. No one is safe for Gaylin. Everyone is expendable. That's how life is, no matter how much you root for them, no matter what you hope for, and if I had to make an argument I'd say Gaylin is the most heartbroken of all the writers, and maybe a broken heart and a dead body are the same thing.
Perhaps Gaylin won't receive the Donna Tartt treatment. But this book is a sign of many books to come: Gaylin is growing, combining subgeneres, challenging any writer who wants to beat her, and letting everyone know the time is up. She's on par with Alex Marwood and Laura Lippman. She writes a book similar to Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, although sometimes her dark places are darker, matches with luminous saccharine sweet heights only Gaylin can bring for you. Gaylin does not confine herself. There's no one person who will get all the answers. There's no one happy ending. My therapist has a saying--a saying lots of therapists and people and yes writers use. "Every relationship ends in heartbreak. There's no way out of that." Am I here referring to our relationship with Gaylin, her novels, or her characters? Perhaps all three. Gaylin works on the assumption you think you're reading a basic bitch crime book. She works on the assumption you think she's confined to her own world, and will never listen, will never learn, and will never write something remotely outside herself. Instead, Gaylin is one of the bravest people writing today, not just ready to listen and learn and understand other people, but then violently kill them off in her book. It takes a lot to try and understand something and then destroy it. And Gaylin does this so well.
Does anyone come out on top at the end of the novel? Are all the loose ends tied up? Will there ever be a book quite like this again? Perhaps it's a strength, writing a new book each and every time, but this could also be her weakness, not able to repeat the same book ever. Either way, Gaylin is winning. Her standalone are heartbreaking and earth-shaking and you will never forget them. For me, I still love What Remains of Me. It was my first Gaylin, and I think everyone remembers their first Gaylin. But never before has she reached into my brain like this, grabbing hold and refusing to let go. During rereads I have found myself fighting sleep so hard as I try to finish a page, a paragraph, a sentence.
Then there's the appearance of Brenna Spector. She just shows up to remind us of Gaylin's origins, and maybe something more. Perhaps we can have an all female original crime fighting Avengers-type thing, what with Laura Lippman's Tess, Alafair Burke's Olivia, and so many more? I would be. fan of this too. I would be a fan of any collaboration between these powerhouses. Fingers crossed and remember: Gaylin's books will knock you dead, just probably not as dead as your favorite characters.