New Riley Sager thriller 'Survive the Night' is a tense road trip to the 1990s
Picture it: A dark and snowy night in 1991, a road trip, Nirvana playing softly on the car radio. And the driver is either your savior — or a murderer.
Taking us on this tense journey is “Survive the Night,” the latest novel by Riley Sager (Dutton, 322 pp, ★★★½ out of four), available June 29.
Our rather anxious narrator, Charlie (yes, that’s her real name. No it’s not short for anything) wants – no, needs – to leave her New Jersey college as soon as possible and return to her home in Ohio. But she’ll need some help getting there since she doesn't drive or have a car.
Charlie’s reasons for not waiting a few days for a promised ride from her boyfriend Robbie, and willing to accept one from nearly anyone as long as it’s soon, are mostly due to her guilt over the recent death of her best friend and roommate, Maddie. Maddie was found stabbed to death — apparently by a serial killer dubbed the Campus Killer — after she and Charlie fought at a bar, and Charlie left without her.
Charlie blames herself, and has slowly been descending into a maddening cycle of not sleeping, hearing voices and imagining she is seeing movie scenes play out in real life. She can barely take care of herself anymore, and she doesn’t want to remain in the room she shared with Maddie any longer. She fears she might die in that dorm if she doesn’t leave.
Enter handsome stranger Josh, who just happens to be looking for someone to split gas costs and join him as he leaves campus to see his father, who has had a stroke. Charlie accepts Josh’s ride offer, and their road trip begins the following night.
And what a trip it is. The bulk of the novel takes place over the course of one night — the one alluded to in the title — where Charlie starts to become suspicious and wonder if Josh is who he says he is or if he might be the Campus Killer.
Sager’s suspense story isn’t about unreliable narrators, though, like so many soapy thrillers before it. Instead, it’s about a young woman’s guilt, keeping up appearances and trying to meet expectations. It's about doing all of these things and then getting yourself into a situation that could at best be naive and at worst be the death of you. What would you do to survive?
This tale almost reads as an allegory for the lofty demands set upon women, particularly during the young adult years, albeit with an R.L. Stine “Fear Street” feel, mixed with Hitchcockian noir and all the top music numbers of the nineties.
And it wouldn’t be a Sager novel (which include "Final Girls" and "Home Before Dark," among others) without an ode to films woven throughout, plus multiple twists along the way.
You may shake your head at Charlie for some of her choices, but you won’t abandon her as she did Maddie in this page-turner. The novel satisfies like a summer blockbuster, nearly demands you stay until the final scenes and the lights come up.