Before I Wake
Serial killers and memory loss are two of the most overused devices in suspense fiction, but Anne Frasier offers a somewhat different spin on these familiar themes in her latest thriller, Before I Wake. It has a few initial weaknesses, but once the story picks up steam, it develops into a gripping read.
Arden Davis was once part of a top-secret FBI project called TAKE, or Through a Killer’s Eyes. The goal was to create profilers who could think like serial killers by completely immersing the test subjects in all known information about the murderers. Arden was one of the program’s success stories, a profiler with the ability to slip into a killer’s thought processes and practically hear his voice in her mind. But her involvement in the program came to an abrupt end the day her parents were murdered by Albert French, the serial killer she was studying. Devastated, Arden left the program, and took part in an experimental procedure which erased her memories of her experiences.
Before French’s execution, he writes a note for Special Agent Nathan Fury, informing him that for all the murders he’d committed, he didn’t kill Arden’s parents. Then a week later, a couple in Oklahoma is killed in the same way French murdered his victims. With the very real possibility that a copycat killer is on the loose, Fury has no choice but to track down Arden, now living a solitary life as a bartender in a New Mexico town. He convinces her to return to the Hill, the isolated research facility in rural West Virginia where TAKE originated, and rejoin the project in hopes of catching her parents’ killer. What Fury doesn’t tell her, what she no longer knows, is that he used to be her lover.
It’s hard to know how much more I can say without venturing into spoiler territory, because the early chapters move at a gradual pace and the story takes a while to develop. It’s probably safe to say that Arden returns to the Hill, where she befriends a trio of students participating in some medical experiments. Meanwhile, she is reunited with Dr. Phillip Harris, the scientist behind TAKE, although their first meeting doesn’t happen until a hundred pages into the book. Eventually, there are some grisly deaths, as you would expect in this type of plot, and Arden is forced to confront her past and discover the killer’s identity.
The story takes a while to hit its stride. Before that, it’s interesting, but not very compelling, and for a while I was starting to wonder when the promised suspense would arrive. However, when the murders begin, the book really starts to click. The pace immediately picks up with the first death, and I tore through the rest of the book without stopping.
Much of what I liked best in the book cannot be revealed for fear of spoilers, but the story does play out somewhat differently than I expected based on its premise. And it takes on a dark, grim tone that’s very effective. There’s a good sense of atmosphere, with a wintry setting that emphasizes the bleakness of the storyline and the situation in which the characters find themselves. The author’s crisp, terse writing style lends an off-kilter feel that’s nicely unsettling and keeps the reader on edge. This is particularly true in sections where some of the characters aren’t acting in their right mind and the author’s prose captures their unstable mental state. The plot moves quickly, with plenty of chilling and suspenseful scenes.
Frasier has a keen eye for character, as she demonstrates again here. I really liked the way she captures some of the supporting cast. She manages to draw their personalities and illuminate their lives in a very insightful way in only a few brief passages. A couple of characters remain a little unfocused, but for the most part, Frasier delivers her trademark distinctive characterizations, starting with the tortured heroine. There are some very effective moments involving Arden that stand out as she confronts her parents’ murders and her own possible role in bringing a killer into their lives.
While this is an entertaining read, there are some weak spots. It’s a little murky around the edges, and certain plot elements were never made entirely clear. As is usually the case with this type of story, the rules of Arden’s memory loss are very convenient, allowing her to remember exactly as much as the plot needs her to. Frasier, who used to write romances as Theresa Weir, now writes straight suspense, but there is a romantic element between Arden and Fury with their shared past. This is one instance of a mainstream thriller where I would have preferred the romantic element been left out entirely. It doesn’t add much and I really didn’t care about Arden and Fury’s relationship at all. It didn’t help that Fury is the least interesting character in the entire book. All of the secondary characters are more vivid personalities than him.
In spite of the weaknesses, Before I Wake is a book I can recommend. Once it really gets going, it delivers high tension, chilling moments, and fast-paced suspense, making for an effective and entertaining read.