“He Started It” by Samantha Downing; Berkley (400 pages, $26)
From the beginning of the highly entertaining “He Started It,” Beth Morgan makes it clear why she should not, cannot, be your heroine. Her flaws and behavior won’t allow her to be considered a heroine. But she does have a story to tell, she says, and it is a doozy.
The witty, self-deprecating and observant Beth is locked in a mind-numbing cross-country road trip with her estranged brother, Eddie, and sister, Portia, as well as her husband. Felix, and her new sister-in-law. Krista. This is not a pleasant family vacation, but one forced on them. Their controlling grandfather’s will demands that they recreate a trip they took 20 years before with him when they were children. This time it’s to bring his ashes to California. If they succeed — without deviating from the original trip — they will share their grandfather’s fortune. That means they also have to stop at every landmark they visited as children. Who knew there were so many tourist markers for Bonnie and Clyde?
That original trip had been meant to give their parents a chance to mend their marriage. Instead, it tore apart their family as each child witnessed just how angry, nasty and domineering their grandfather was. This new trip may be even worse as decades of grudges, betrayals and lies — lots of lies — rise to the surface. Then there is that black pickup that seems to be following them, the frequent flat tires, the constant sniping. And just how did those ashes get lost when the urn supposedly was safely ensconced in the trunk with their luggage?
The worst dangers, as Beth often notes, come from her own family. Each of them feels the same about each other. It just takes Beth to articulate it. “I love my siblings, all of them, I really do. I also hate them. That’s how it goes — love, hate, love, hate, back and forth like a seesaw.”
Downing’s breezy style gives way to a menacing undercurrent that works well in “He Started It,” a technique she utilized in her debut, the Edgar-nominated “My Lovely Wife.” A stunningly surprising ending adds the finishing touch to “He Started It,” a melding of domestic drama with psychological thriller.
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