Monday, December 14, 2020

Book Review: One Step Behind

By Jami Denison

I was introduced to the concept of medical ethics at an early age, thanks to the TV show M*A*S*H. “He is the enemy,” Frank Burns screeched as Hawkeye began operating on a North Korean. “Funny; he bleeds just like our side,” Hawkeye answered. In Lauren North’s latest suspense thriller, One Step Behind, British emergency room doctor Jenna Lawson is fighting her own private war, and the enemy has remained unseen. Jenna is being stalked by a stranger; she sees him everywhere she goes. He sends threatening emails. He leaves burned dolls outside her home. He knows the name of her husband, Stuart, and her children, Beth and Archie. Jenna’s called the police multiple times, but there’s really nothing they can do.

Then one day, he shows up in Jenna’s A&E. As a patient. Matthew Dover, the man who’s been following Jenna everywhere, has been hit by a bus. Matthew’s life is in Jenna’s hands. If he dies, her problems will be over. Will she save him anyway?

It would be a short, and much different, book if Jenna decided to let Matthew’s brain bleed out, so it’s not really a spoiler to say she saves his life anyway. The book alternates between Jenna’s point of view and that of Sophie, Matthew’s sister, who describes Matthew’s childhood and the events that made him into the adult he became. Sophie also seems to be a victim; her boyfriend Nick is a control freak on the verge of abuse. As Jenna tries to convince the police that Matthew is her stalker, she still feels like she’s being followed. Is it PTSD, or did Matthew have an accomplice? She’s still a nervous wreck, even with Matthew unconscious in intensive care, and her nerves are affecting her job, her marriage, and her kids. Sophie, worried about her brother, suspects he’s involved with something he didn’t tell her about.

Thrillers are all about pacing; ratcheting up the tension with every new plot point. One Step Behind delivers this in spades, presenting a heroine who’s easy to root for and a scenario that is all too common. Jenna’s terror at every new email message is easily understood, and the reader feels just as scared and frustrated as Jenna’s husband, friends, and the police brush off her continued worries. Matthew’s in the hospital; why is Jenna still upset?

By presenting Sophie’s side of the story, North seems to be attempting to explain how a stalker becomes a stalker. And that’s one of the two critical questions the narrative poses; the other being whether Matthew is actually Jenna’s stalker, and if he’s working with someone. American consumers of thrillers, mysteries, and horror are notorious for their desire to have everything neatly explained and all plot holes tied up in a bow; I’m no different. And while North does answer these questions, the ultimate reveals aren’t nearly as satisfying as some of the other options she teased. 

Ultimately, One Step Behind is not about medical ethics, but about how frequently women are told to “calm down” and “get over it” when they’re being pushed around. Sadly, women’s voices are often not heard until it’s too late.

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review. 

More by Lauren North:

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