Carter Wilson, “The Dead Girl in 2A”

There are at least three common elements of a Carter Wilson thriller:

  1. A story within the story.
  2. An intriguing premise.
  3. Nail-biting suspense with a heavy creep factor.

With his new novel, The Dead Girl in 2A, the other thing we can all count on is that Carter Wilson will add to his awards shelf. Wilson’s last three books all won The Colorado Book Award. (In order: The Comfort of Black, Revelation, and Mister Tender’s Girl.)

The Dead Girl in 2A is downright eerie. The new thriller takes a familiar human moment—Do we know each other? Have we ever met?—and blows it up.

In this case, it’s a chance meeting between Jake Buchanan and Clara Stowe.

Jake is in a “memory fog.” He’s not sure why. When we meet him, he’s checking on his daughter, who was hurt in a car accident. His relationship with his wife is strained. He is on his way from Boston to Denver to take a job ghostwriting a book for a wealthy man and he’s not even sure how his potential client made his fortune. He’s certainly getting a paid a boatload; what’s the risk? He needs the money to help pay for his daughter’s medical care. He boards a plane and takes his seat.

Clara Stowe is the “Girl in 2A.” She occupies the seat next to Jake’s on the Denver flight.

She is not dead—yet. She tells Jake, after a few awkward initial exchanges, that she plans to kill herself. She’s extremely lonely. She’s a recluse. She’s writing in her journal on the plane. “I call it the Book of Clara,” she tells Jake. (Excerpts from The Book of Clara become the book within the book; but it’s not the only one.) “I’m writing memories of my life, starting from right now and working back. It’s fitting you’re in the first chapter. The stranger on the plane who wasn’t really a stranger.”

The memory theme is everywhere. Jake is worried about his daughter’s long-term memory issues. Clara is writing her memoir; Jake is on the way to write someone else’s. When Jake meets Alexander Eaton in his high-rise apartment in Denver, Eaton tells Jake that memory is “the one true currency all of us possess … Memories are the truest measure of wealth, and yet they can’t be passed down, not really. Stories can be told, but our memories, those things as unique as our fingerprints, all crumble along with our bones.”

Eaton, it turns out, should know. He has a powerful story from his life that affected the lives—and deaths—of many others.

Jake can’t quite read Eaton, but he really can’t stop thinking about Clara. “She’s out there, somewhere. Maybe at this very moment she’s drawing her last breath.” Jake realizes he should have done something more to interfere with Clara’s plans. But how? And, more importantly why?

Clara’s backstory is revealed as she makes her way the Maroon Bells in Aspen, her chosen suicide spot. “The culmination of all I’d become, the hours learning, experiencing and forgetting. The moments of laughter and pleasure, which were too few. The relationships, the people, even the pets I’d once had. All the living things that had floated around in my world, all for different lengths of time, plunging to various depths within me. Some leaving marks, others, not. Everything I experienced that added up to what became Clara Stores, the thirty-four-year-old woman who sat in in an Italian restaurant alone, not even eating her last meal.”

Wilson takes us back to Jake’s decision to take part in a shady memory research project run by a strange guy named Landis. Landis has made promises that if the trial works, he will restore all of Jake’s forgotten memories. He’ll also embolden Jake’s future and unlock talents. “Landis absolutely pinpointed many of my specific thoughts and feelings. Like how I’ve always had a nagging feeling I was meant to be something greater than I had become, and that maybe my inability to recall my childhood was part of my limitations.”

Wilson ratchets suspense like a master. His characters are regular people getting bound up and caught up by a need to explain and understand what is happening to them, why the ground under their feet has shifted. There is often a sense that free will means nothing, that someone else is in control. With Jake, Eaton knows things he shouldn’t know. If you’re Jake, you must understand how that’s possible and you need to unravel a series of eerie coincidences that give you a sense that you’re a pinball in somebody else’s machine.

The Dead Girl in 2A, which is based on a seed of truth from real life, is another astute, layered, complex thriller that digs into a theme we can all connect with. What do we remember? Why do we remember the things we remember? What memories leave marks—and why? And if we could wipe the slate clean (“like an Etch A Sketch”) would that change who we are and what we’re capable of achieving?


Previously reviewed:

Mr. Tender’s Girl

Includes Q & A with Carter Wilson




Also includes a Q & A

One response to “Carter Wilson, “The Dead Girl in 2A”

  1. Pingback: 2019: Top Books | Don't Need A Diagram

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