I received this book as part of the Amazon Prime Kindle First Books Program. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Amazon Prime has a program where on the first of the month you can choose a free book from about 4-5 options (books that have been promoted into this program by their authors/editors, I would assume). Normally the books cost something like $3-$5, is my understanding.
Though I’ve been getting these free book notifications for months, this was the first one I actually downloaded. The description sold it as something of a thriller about a young adult female (Zoe) who had escaped a serial killer (The Tally Man) years ago (though her friend had not been so lucky), only to find herself running from him again now.
Most of the negative reviews of this book on Goodreads focused on the unrealistic elements of the serial killer himself. I actually disagree with them. I obsess over real life crime (I can’t help myself, even on the nights when it means I’m going to be checking behind every single crevice in my tiny one-bedroom condo), and given the number of active serial killers assumed to be in the U.S. at any given time, and the pathology that creates potential psychopaths, I think someone like this (with the detailed history included) could quite possibly genuinely exist.
Which didn’t help me much when I was reading it, as it takes place in the Bay Area. While reading this book, I was constantly checking the nooks of my condo at night and suppressing the urge to google potential active serial killers in the area (these make the news less than they should!). No, but really – these make the news less than they should. Thank you, BAU.
In addition, the book was so spot on about the impact on victims and survivors of violence that it almost cut me to the core thinking about women I’ve worked with in the prison system (I previously volunteered as a teacher in a women’s prison system, and more recently wrote my sociological master’s thesis after observing women in prison therapy groups over a period of months). Most of those women were survivors of serious domestic violence. While dealing with the return of the serial killer and lack of protection by the police, our protagonist Zoe states, “So, the upshot of all this is leave town, lose my job, and start over, while he gets to carry on doing his thing. That’s just what every victim wants to hear.” It’s upsetting that it’s true – so often the victim must lose everything to make any attempt to move on or be protected, while the abuser maintains a position of control and normalcy. It is in the small phrases like these that I felt Wood actually did in some way understand the reality not only of the potential social component connected to psychopaths, but also the victimology that women are so often subject to. For brief moments, he appears to have sincere insight into the human psyche and societal impacts.
Then you remember what you’re reading and it all goes to shit.
This book was a fast read, with the thriller element strong enough to keep me turning pages and finishing it quickly. That is not to say that the book was necessarily good. In the end, I almost certainly wouldn’t recommend it.
The book would have been an even faster read if not for the repetitive nature of the author’s writing. “He couldn’t let her escape punishment again” must have been mentioned by the Tally Man about 50 times, along with Zoe, the main character, discussing her guilt over leaving her friend behind during her first kidnapping experience. Valid points, but points that were seared into the reader’s mind the first or even second mention. Eventually, I started wondering how much shorter the book would be if Wood continually moved the story forward rather than focusing on emotional elements of the characters he had already provided.
I found the writing style providing the killer’s point of view equally frustrating. The point of view in the story bounces between Zoe and the killer himself (the reader experiences this for the first time 1-2 chapters in), along with the occasional very unnecessary and confusing chapter from the mind of a police officer. The serial killer perspective really found its way under my skin, and I started wondering why. The words from the killer felt more like a violent horror porn, and oftentimes this book seemed to follow that genre more than a thriller.
Then again, I started to wonder, (and a spoiler alert in this paragraph for Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl), didn’t Gone Girl do something similar, just from a female killer’s point of view? Was I being biased, appreciating the detailed descriptions of a female killer but feeling off-put by this male killer’s thought-pattern? But, no, it wasn’t just the gendered point of view. Gone Girl gave the impression of calculation and tactics; the narration moved the story forward by providing motive and logical action. The One That Got Away seemed rather to revel in unnecessarily violent descriptions. “No reply came from the dead woman, but he thought she had learned. She had said she had while he flogged her, but most of them did. They were willing to say anything just to make the pain stop. But there always came a point, usually just before he ended the punishment, when the sinner either confessed to their crimes or remained silent in defiant.” Rather than reading the logistical calculations to a cold goal, The One That Got Away provides entire chapters dedicated solely to description of the killer’s pleasure in his kills and desires for more.
This writing style doesn’t create a feeling of tension regarding what’s going to happen in the book, but more of a cringe-worthy exploitative description of intense violence that does not help me to understand the characters or story in any stronger a light. It may have almost been acceptable if each time Wood popped into the killer’s psyche we got a new piece of a puzzle, got a better understanding, but more often the reader gets phrases like those quoted above stated in different ways, repetitively, as a violent indulgence more so than a literary device. I almost stopped reading halfway through as a result.
The core problem of the book, however, came down to the thematic element (or lack of development thereof): punishment and what one does or does not deserve. Some of the deep-rooted theme seemed intentional by the author, and at other moments, I almost had to wonder if Wood was witty or intelligent enough to draw the connections he was making. The killer’s motive, provided early on in the story, revolved around punishment that he believed his sinners “deserved.” It seemed to be described by Wood as an unhealthy psychiatric obsession – this need to punish. Yet he then took what was a killer’s pathology and demonstrated the elements of basic human nature underlying it through his other characters in the book, particularly Zoe, his victim. Oftentimes she had thoughts along the lines of, “No one who inflicted harm on others got to escape. Not this guy. Not Laurie Hernandez’s and Holli’s killer,” or “He couldn’t escape punishment again.” And the law enforcement figures supported the idea as well: “He couldn’t wait to arrest the bastard. The unfortunate side of the justice system was that the Tally Man would never experience the same level of pain as his victims had.”
This look at our desire and need to punish as a society, evident by the way we run our justice system as punitive rather than rehabilitative, makes the Tally Man’s motivations seem like second nature, similar to those described by so-called “normal” humans and characters. And this may have been the most interesting part of the book, this deeper theme of our inherent need to feel punishment has been properly inflicted. And yet, the author went nowhere with it – what does this mean of the line between Zoe’s need for vengeance and the killer’s need for proper punishment of observed sin? Whose desire for punishment is correct, and why – who determines what level of punishment is correct and for what crimes? Are these subjective or objective factors? And if subjective, why are we so quick to separate the Tally Man from our own humanness? Because of this inherent fear of violence within us?
I wouldn’t have expected Wood to take the time to answer out each question individually, but even the allusion to some greater meaner to these connections he had woven would have made the book worth the read.
Instead, I feel that what I got left with was the outline for a truly interesting look at human nature in the form of the thriller, executed in repetitive, poor writing and an almost pornographic justification for violent imagery consistently throughout. While quick, I felt a glad relief once the read was over. I have two more books waiting for me that I have already downloaded from Amazon Prime’s program, and I can’t help but wonder what quality I should anticipate.