There’s a popular Geico commercial that runs around Halloween every year where four teenagers are trying to escape a killer. Rather than get into a running car, as one girl suggests, they hide behind chain saws and then flee to a cemetery, all while the killer shakes his head in disbelief.
That commercial kept popping up in my head as I read Riley Sager’s latest thriller, Survive the Night, where college student Charlie Jordan keeps making one dumb move after another. That’s not to say that Sager has written a boring novel. The characters are interesting and the plot, while often straining credibility, moves along. But you may find yourself shaking your head frequently hoping that the young people in your life never make such wrong-headed moves.
Charlie is best friends with her roommate, Maddy, even though the two are very different. While Charlie’s focus in college involves studying film, Maddy operates like a star, dressing in over-the-top outfits and charming others with her outgoing personality. One evening, Maddy asks Charlie to venture out to a bar. An introvert, Charlie has a boyfriend, Robbie, a graduate student, but they are more likely to enjoy time alone. Charlie agrees to go, but after too many hours in the noisy bar, she wants to leave.
First dumb move: There’s safety in numbers and because someone dubbed the Campus Killer is targeting women at the college, Charlie and Maddy should stay together. Charlie leaves, but Maddy stays. Walking away from the bar, Charlie notices a man approach Maddy. That image will haunt her later when Maddy is found dead, apparently the killer’s latest victim.
Guilt overtakes Charlie and, despite entreaties from Robbie, she decides to drop out of college. For a while? For good? She’s not sure. What she does know is she wants to leave before the Thanksgiving vacation.
Second dumb move: Charlie checks the college’s ride board and accepts a ride with a total stranger who says his name is Josh. That this man approaches her, should cause Charlie’s alarm meter to rise. There’s a real possibility he could be the Campus Killer. Instead, she agrees to go with him.
Josh shows up late and he blocks Charlie’s view of the car’s trunk when placing her luggage inside. She thinks about canceling, but decides to go ahead with the ride. Josh tells Charlie he works at the college, but can’t seem to answer simple questions about various buildings on campus. And when they make a rest stop, Charlie has the chance to look through his wallet and discovers his name isn’t Josh.
Third dumb move: Despite her suspicions, Charlie, for some strange reason, sticks with the ride.
Charlie is a film encyclopedia, able to summarize plots, list the actors, even recite key parts of dialogue. Yet she’s so into films, she often finds herself hallucinating, imagining herself in one of the movies she loves. (I found these sections of the novel annoying.)
Fourth dumb move: Josh convinces Charlie to play a game of 20 questions to guess the object he’s thinking about. That item turns out to be something only the Campus Killer would know about. Later, Josh convinces Charlie that they never played the game and she imagined the entire episode. When another opportunity to escape opens up, Charlie still stays.
There are many more dumb moves, but to list all of them would give away too much of the plot. Several of the characters do such major flip flops that I had to go back to see if there were any hints about their motivations.
Sager manages to tie everything together, but that ending feels forced. While the ride produces some exciting moments, the final destination is disappointing.
Survive the Night
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