A Gift for Dying, by M.J. Arlidge

Eight stars

While he has been highly successful with his Helen Grace series, M.J. Arlidge branches out here with a standalone thriller that will leave readers wondering throughout. Kassandra ‘Kassie’ Wojcek may appear to be like any other teenager around Chicago, but she has a secret ability that can only be described as eerie. Able to predict how someone will die and when, Kassie sees this premonition as something prophetic, though she has no ability to stop it happening. When a lawyer with whom Kassie had been arguing turns up dead, the video evidence points at Kassie. Enter CPD Detective Gabrielle Grey, who begins an investigation into the teen, but garners little. Kassie is sent to see forensic psychologist Dr. Adam Brandt, who hears her story and is not entirely convinced. However, there is something about her determination and openness that leads Brandt to give her the benefit of the doubt. Helping to keep Kassie’s secret, Brandt finds his walls coming down, even as Kassie predicts another victim and is spot on. When Detective Grey catches the second murder and discovers that Kassie is again one of the last people to have seen the victim, her radar begins pinging anew. However, lurking in the shadows of Chicago is the real killer, someone who earns the moniker ‘The Chicago Butcher’. Will Kassie be able to help locate him before he kills again and why are all the victims tied to her in some way? It’s all hands on deck to solve this crime, though Kassie’s premonitions may not be enough. A wonderfully complex thriller that Arlidge has constructed for his fans. Dark and eerie, with just a touch of the supernatural. Fans of slowly evolving thrillers will surely want to get their hands on this one.

I have long been a fan of M.J. Arlidge and his work, which takes thriller writing to a new level. Balancing the art of great storytelling with the darker side of a depraved antagonist, Arlidge is able to lure his readers in from the outset while toying with them as the story evolves. The two-pronged story allows the reader the dual protagonist. Kassie Wojcek proves to be as troubled a teen as can be, with drug and emotional abuse, as well as a temper to match. She seeks to isolate herself from others repeatedly, which ends up being baffling when one notices her attempts to warn the victims throughout the piece. That she forges a relationship with Dr. Adam Brandt is all the more amuse, creating a loose parental figure out of him, particularly when Kassie’s own mother leaves her at one point in the narrative. Brandt must also struggle as he comes to terms with balancing his personal and professional lives. It takes a tragedy to help sober him up to reality’s harsh bite and keeps him in a state of perpetual confusion. However, the Kassie-Brandt relationship serves to level them both out and keeps the story fresh throughout. One might also look to Gabrielle Grey as a protagonist, though the investigation theme remains rooted in the background throughout most of the novel. The investigation seems almost an afterthought, thereby turning Gabrielle Grey into an apparent lesser character. However, the premise of the plot, that there is a killer that must be apprehended, contradicts this at its core. The story was quite strong and highly unique in its approach, keeping the reader guessing throughout. What does Kassie know and how did she acquire it? What tie does she have to the Chicago Butcher? Where do the criminal and psychological aspects of the novel mesh together and how strong do they make the overall product? Arlidge is a master at his craft and, save for a few irritants that I found—setting a story in America, but having his characters and narrator use British slang—the story was stellar. That this is a one-off novel serves Arlidge well to sell his wares and hopefully capture new fans who will devour the Helen Grace novels in short order.

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge, for a wonderful standalone novel. I have missed Helen Grace, but this helped smooth things over as I wait.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons