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Come With Me by Ronald Malfi4 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsI think most of us would agree that the duality of human nature is an extremely common storytelling trope, and not just in genre fiction. So why do writers keep coming back to it? I suppose because — no matter how many times we tell ourselves we should have expected it, no matter how many ways we come up with to lie to ourselves that we aren’t guilty of it too — it will always be shocking to us to discover that someone we thought we knew better than anyone in the world was someone we barely knew at all. That they had a secret self, kept tucked away from the prying eyes and even more prying questions of friends and family. It can leave you feeling, if not betrayed, completely unmoored, as if you can’t know your own mind anymore. In the worst instances, you feel that your ability to trust has been shattered.

This is what happens to Aaron Decker in Ronald Malfi’s gripping Come With Me, a supernaturally-tinged story that probably veers closer to thriller than horror, but not so much as to alienate horror purists. As the novel begins, Aaron is thrown into a distressingly real modern American horror when he learns from the news that his wife Alison has been killed in a mass shooting. The opening scenes are handled by Malfi with an absolutely flawless combination of tension and restraint. Aaron’s frantic calls to Alison’s phone that keep going to voicemail, his anxiety in the hours when he doesn’t yet know her fate, the feelings of guilt and all of the what-ifs that race through his mind in the immediate aftermath — all of these moments are conveyed with both masterful suspense and a real sense from Malfi that he understands he’s writing about moments of horror that too many people have actually experienced in this country over the years, and that he’s handling the topic with compassion, not exploitation.

The aftermath of sudden, senseless loss is like being caught in a whirlpool that never quite sucks you under. But Aaron, in his attempts to cope, isn’t quite prepared for the discoveries he makes among Alison’s possessions. A receipt for a stay in a remote hotel, paid for in cash. Dozens of newspaper clippings about the murders of teenage girls going back 15 years or more. A gun in a hope chest on Alison’s side of the closet, when Alison always despised guns and swore never to have one in the house. And Aaron is being guided towards these discoveries by strange phenomena in the house, such as a closet light that turns on and off by itself, or a key appearing where there hadn’t been one before. Is Alison’s ghost trying to contact Aaron, or is Aaron simply losing his marbles, or is something else going on entirely?

At first, Aaron’s suspicions go in obvious directions. Was Alison possibly having an affair? But once he goes through her papers in detail, he learns she was pursuing an investigation in secret into the murders of a series of teen girls, all of whom came from those tiny, depressed industrial towns where there’s no apparent mobility of any kind, and the only social hub is the seedy local bar where all the patrons are drinking off depression more than anything else. But why would Alison, a local reporter for a tiny regional paper, be pursuing this kind of investigation in the first place? And why wouldn’t she just tell Aaron? As he says, if she was working on a book or something, he’d be completely supportive. Aaron finds himself picking up Alison’s leads and pursuing the mystery himself, and he discovers far more than he bargained for in the process.

Malfi knows full well that there isn’t much interesting about serial killer thrillers in and of themselves. The formula is pretty well played out by now. You have a determined investigator pursuing multiple clues, going down blind alleys, sorting out the red herrings from the valid leads, not always successfully, until the climactic moment when the killer is confronted and they deliver a deranged speech justifying their crimes in lurid and complex detail. Seen it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times.

But the trope of serial-killer-as-mad-genius is nonsense. Netflix is full of cheesy documentaries purporting to “explore the mind of the serial killer.” But really, what is there to “explore” other than anger and misogyny? Killers who managed to get away with murder after murder for years, like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer or the Yorkshire Ripper, weren’t successful because they were brilliant masterminds, but because the law enforcement agencies tasked with finding them were either incompetent, or corrupt, or were complicit in the cultural disregard of certain kinds of victims as insufficiently innocent to bother caring about. To his credit, Malfi does address this in particular in the story.

Even though he does follow serial killer formula pretty closely for much of the book, Malfi lets Come With Me rise above genre clichés by making it first and foremost a character piece. C. Robert Cargill has said that one easy way to distinguish a thriller from a horror story is that if it’s told from the viewpoint of the investigator, it’s a thriller, and if it’s told from the viewpoint of the victim, it’s horror. In Come With Me, we have investigator and victim in the same people, both Aaron, suffering an unimaginable loss and looking for closure and resolution, and Alison, whose youth and eventual quest for justice (or revenge?) marked her in ways she might have found hard to reconcile with herself, let alone Aaron.

The story is never less than riveting, even when Aaron (not always unbelievably) behaves rashly on purpose in order to move events forward, because we care about him. Malfi never says so outright, but it seemed clear to me that Aaron’s real goal in pursuing Alison’s investigations is a deep need to achieve the justice against her own killer that was denied, when the man took his own life after his rampage. If Alison really was on the trail of a serial killer picking off petite blonde teenagers, and Aaron can prove it and run the man down, well, it won’t exactly be like bringing Alison’s killer to justice. But psychologically it might be the next best thing, in addition to bringing closure to the victims’ families.

Also at the heart of the story are all of Aaron’s discoveries about Alison’s life he’d never known before, which in turn teach him more about his own capacity for acceptance and understanding. The book’s title, Come With Me, is spoken by Alison at the beginning of the story, in the moments before she leaves on the trip into town which will be her last. It is spoken, in many different contexts, by other characters throughout the book. Life itself is a series of journeys, and when you combine your life’s journey with someone else’s, you’re going to end up in destinations you were never ready for. And the journeys we choose not to go on shape us just as much as the ones we do.