“Survive the Night,” the newest offering from bestselling author Riley Sager, takes place in 1991. Charlie Jordan, a college film major, at Olyphant University, is struggling to deal with the murder of her best friend and roommate Maddy. She wants to leave campus immediately. Charlie feels responsible for what happened to Maddy. Instead of socializing with her friend, the two got into an argument, and Charlie left Maddy at the bar, to walk home by herself. The next morning, Maddy became the third victim of the person known as the Campus Killer.
In order to leave campus as quickly as possible, Charlie posts an add on the ride share board. She needs someone who is either driving to Ohio, or who will be passing through and can drop her off at her grandmother’s house. The charismatic, Josh Baxter, seems too good to be true. Like Charlie, he is headed to Ohio. Josh says that he needs to get to his father, who is sick. The two agree to travel together, but right from the outset, when Josh picks Charlie up and doesn’t let her get a look inside the trunk of his car, she begins to suspect, that perhaps she made a terrible mistake agreeing to ride with him. Since it is 1991, it’s not as if Charlie had the ability to look up Josh on social media, nor does she have a cell phone if she gets in trouble. Sager was smart to set the story in 1991, because if Charlie did have a cell, unless it got damaged, it would be implausible for her to stay in a dangerous situation for one second more than she had to.
While the premise of Sager’s novel might seem simplistic, readers have to have a bit of patience, to see that in the end, Sager is not being formulaic. The more time passes that Charlie is a passenger in Josh’s car, the more her dread grows. She believes that she is in a dangerous situation. As the two have been talking, Charlie has picked up on things that Josh says, that are different from what he previously told her; at least that is what she thinks. Her mindset is that perhaps Josh sought her out. Charlie saw someone with Maddy, at the bar, from a distance, the night she was murdered. Unfortunately, Charlie hasn’t been able to recall any details that would help identify her friend’s killer.
A reader might get a sense, while reading Sager’s novel, that Charlie is an unreliable narrator. She is not merely a film major, but a connoisseur of cinema. As the reader will learn, Charlie deals with cinematic hallucinations in her head, as if an actual movie were playing for her own private amusement. Film provides Charlie with a focal point to seemingly everything that is going on in her life. In order to escape the trauma that she has dealt with, which sadly, includes more than just Maddy’s murder, Charlie escapes into her fantasy world. In the process, she zones out from reality and loses time. When she wakes, she’s not sure what is real and what is the product of her imagination. Sager seamlessly blends the lines between what Charlie has imagined and what is actually taking place. This helps to keep the car ride tense. The novel, as it advances, offers some excellent twists and turns. I don’t want to write further about plot points, because I have no interest in ruining anything for those of you who might be interested in reading Sager’s work.
Is Josh Baxter the campus killer? Was he following Charlie, waiting for the perfect opportunity to set up a situation where he can get her alone? Why didn’t he want her to see what was in the trunk? Is the whole situation one of Charlie’s cinematic delusions? All of those questions and more will be answered by the novel’s conclusion.
“Survive the Night” was published on June 29, 2021 by Dutton Books. Parts horror, mystery, suspense, and thriller, the novel is 324 pages. I’ve been a fan of Sager’s since his first novel, “Final Girls,” and this book, the fifth that he’s written, did not disappoint. While reading this novel, I found myself saying “just one more page” as I glanced at the time on my cell phone and realized I had about five hours before I had to get up for work.
In closing, Sager, in my opinion, has done it again. He’s written characters that are easy to cheer for, a page turner that keeps the tension up, and an ending that will bring the narrative together without leaving unanswered questions for the reader to decide what took place. Recommended for fans of the author, and those of you who are reading this that are perhaps looking to get into a new author. I also would recommend this to those of you who enjoy reading well written suspense.