Holly Goddard Jones, already an award winning writer of short fiction, turns to the longer form with her debut novel The Next Time You See Me. It is an auspicious beginning combining page-turning mystery with compelling characters that hook the reader in the first few pages and reel him in exhausted by the climax.
Set in a small Kentucky town on the Tennessee border, The Next Time You See Me introduces to a cross section of the community—the old and the young, the wealthy and the poor, the socially adept and the misfits, but especially the misfits. There’s Susanna Mitchell, a middle school teacher and mother who feels trapped in the kind of middle class life that most people would consider normal, and her wild, disreputable sister Ronnie. There’s Emily Houchens, a 13-year old eighth grader, a loner bullied by her classmates; and Wyatt Powell, an overweight 55-year old factory worker, the object of ridicule by his co-workers. There’s the African-American local detective Tony Joyce, an ex-baseball star at the high school set apart from the rest of the community by his race.
When Susanna fears that her sister has gone missing and goes to the police, these marginally connected characters become involved in the disappearance as they try to deal with the problems of their lives. The narrative moves back and forth between the points of view of these characters and several others, creating a nightmarish vision of what life is like for those who feel like they don’t fit in: the cruelties they suffer, the isolation they feel. And if, when they reach out for human connection, things turn out badly and violence is the result, it is only to be expected.
The novel itself is less a “who done it” than it is a “what happened and how.” Unless you think the author is making it too obvious so it can’t be right, who-did-it seems clear early on. Jones is less interested in a sudden revelatory climax than she is in an examination of her characters’ unhappinesses with their lives and their ineffectual attempts to deal them. If there is any revelation, it is for at least some of these characters self-revelation. But it is the really the reader who comes away with the insight, with some real insight into the world Jones has created. It is the kind of insight you’d expect from a literary novel.
The Next Time You See Me is no ordinary thriller, and Holly Goddard Jones is no ordinary writer of crime fiction. She has a distinct voice of her own. It is a voice you will want to hear again.