This is no Throw Momma from the Train. These are high school kids in their senior year, messing with each other in ways only Eileen Cook can imagine. More psychological thriller than black comedy, it’s perhaps spawned by the 1951 Hitchcockian thriller Strangers on a Train—two strangers who agree to exchange murders so neither can be connected to the victim.
We could call this book “Strangers on a Plane.” Nicki, the charming British psychopath meets Kim Maher in the Vancouver airport when their London flight is delayed several hours. Kim is beginning a sixteen-day “Student Scholars for Change” program, along with several strangers and a boy named Connor who’s just dumped her. Kim is devastated, but she’s come along on the trip, regardless. From the outset, Connor is the boy you love to hate, as we watch him carry on with Miriam, his new love interest.
Written in first person and viewed entirely through Kim’s eyes, it’s feasible she might get drunk with a manipulative stranger and share her personal problems. She hasn’t connected with anyone else in the group. She’s lonely and vulnerable. She might even write a list of reasons, with Nicki’s prompting, called WHY I HATE CONNOR O’REILLY and cap it with AND WHY HE DESERVES TO DIE. And when, through a vodka haze, Kim hears Nicki’s tragic tale—parents divorced, an abusive alcoholic mother who won’t let her live with her father in Vancouver—she might even agree that Nicki’s mother deserves to die too.
The girls bond over their woeful stories, but it’s clear that the older, more worldly, Nicki is in control from the outset. She’s already goaded Kim into stealing a bottle of vodka from the duty-free shop. After the night of drinking and sharing on the plane, Kim awakens alone and hung over, wondering what happened. Nicki’s gone, but she’s got the list that details why Connor should die, along with her own list. Kim has drunkenly agreed that the concept of murdering for each other is pure genius though she’s stated she is no killer. Everyone contemplates killing a nasty ex, don’t they? Maybe even a mean, drunken mother? It was all just talk, wasn’t it?
After landing in Heathrow, the students find their rather dodgy lodgings in South Kensington. Part travelogue, with a scattering of historical references, Cook’s detailed, sensory descriptions of London and her tongue-in-cheek humour backdrop the text. Kim’s room is “like an attic you’d find in a Charlotte Bronte novel, one where you kept a crazy relative.” Little does Kim know that by the end of the novel, she’ll be questioning her own sanity.
Soon after arrival, the students pair off and Kim finds herself with Alex, a boy so nice, so innocent, I immediately suspect him of something heinous. Is he working with Nicki, a subtle plant? Kim finds the innocent, supportive, highly allergic Alex irresistible, and he’s appeared just at the right time. Distracted by Alex and the possibility of true love, Kim forgets about Nicki and their drunken hyperbolic rant on the plane until she glimpses her at the Tower of London. Though Kim charges after her, the ever-elusive Nicki slips into the crowd and disappears.
Then Connor makes a fatal error. At the chaotic South Kensington tube station, he confronts Kim about Alex. “If you’re dating him just to make me jealous, there’s no point.” The conversation ends in a flurry of obscenities and seconds later, someone jumps in front of the train. Kim sees the blue Nike sneaker. Connor. But did he jump or was he pushed? Why would he jump? Is it possible that Nicki murdered Connor? Pushed him in front of the train at the last second and disappeared into the chaos? Kim wrestles with the guilt of all the horrible things she’s said about him, and then the games begin.
“You owe me a murder,” states Nicki. What will it take for Kim to pay up?
Eileen Cook is a trickster. Nothing is what it seems. Unravelling the truth from the appearance of truth is one of her specialities. Cook won the John Spray Mystery Award for The Hanging Girl in 2018. Her psychological thrillers may feature teenage characters, but their actions are mature and calculated.
Injected with subtle wit, coloured by shades of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, You Owe Me a Murder, will keep you awake and guessing right until the end.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2019
As reviewed in the Ottawa Review of Books, March 2019