Stevens (Always Watching, 2013, etc.) draws a dark crime drama from the beautiful blue-green of Canada’s Vancouver Island.
In the town of Campbell River, Toni has a rough home life; she can't wait for high school graduation to escape her mother’s angry disapproval. Ryan’s home is worse, his father an alcoholic abuser. Together, however, Toni and Ryan make the broken pieces fit. In school, Toni runs afoul of mean girls Shauna, Rachel, Kim and Cathy, who harass her and spread ugly rumors. Toni has an escape planned—a post-graduation apartment with Ryan—but then her younger sister, Nicole, her mother’s favorite, joins Shauna’s clique and starts dabbling in booze and boys and harassing Toni. It seems like kid stuff, until Nicole is bludgeoned to death. Toni and Ryan immediately become suspects; they're convicted of murder and sent to prison. Stevens' masterful plot spins into evil with "teen girls turning on each other, the viciousness and pack mentality that can arise." She writes from Toni’s point of view, shifting easily between past and present while delving into family tensions before the murder, then prison life, then back to Campbell River after Toni’s parole. Entirely believable, Toni evolves from a misunderstood, resentful and frightened teenager into an intelligent yet closed-off woman tempered by 15 years in prison. The writing is crisp and the dialogue realistic as Toni speculates about possible suspects and motives, knowing all the while that finding the killer may reveal one of Campbell River's ugliest secrets. Tension cranks to the breaking point when Cathy, now a drug-addled misfit, is murdered. Ryan and Toni become suspects again, but they realize it’s a sign that the conspiracy that jailed them has fractured. Still vulnerable yet clinging to optimism, the outcasts decide they must find Nicole’s murderer. Stevens has woven a warped psychological drama, a melancholy tale that comes to an existential and yet hopeful conclusion.
Think James Lee Burke and Sue Grafton: Stevens' dark psychological thriller shares their damaged people and distinctive senses of place.