Summary: Charlie Jordan is being driven across the country by a serial killer. Maybe. Behind the wheel is Josh Baxter, a stranger Charlie met by the college ride share board. On the road they share their stories, carefully avoiding the subject dominating the news – the Campus Killer, who’s tied up and stabbed three students in the span of a year, has just struck again.
Travelling the journey between university and their final destination, Charlie begins to notice discrepancies in Josh’s story. As she plans her escape from the man she is becoming certain is the killer, she starts to suspect Josh knows exactly what she’s thinking. Meaning she could very well end up as his next victim.
I started to slightly dislike Riley Sager once I found out he was using a unisex pseudonym to potentially lure in a different demographic of readers. I know people do this all the time, but I remember feeling let down when I learned the stories I had enjoyed were written by (insert dramatic sigh) another white man. However, I still found myself devouring his books, because even if they weren’t downright terrifying, they were still strong contenders in the overwhelmingly average thriller genre.
Until I read Survive the Night. This is not only his worst book, but also one of the weakest thrillers to come from 2021. And it almost exclusively boils down to the main character being the dumbest person alive.
Survive the Night takes place during the early 90s, when Satanic Panic and Stranger Danger were at their peak (we absolutely will not get into the fact that the only time I was aware of the setting was when Smells Like Teen Spirit was played, which was thrice). The premise of the story is simple and pretty straightforward: Charlie’s best friend died at the hands of the Campus Killer, and in the aftermath, one night Charlie decides to accept a ride home from a complete stranger. This is the first stupid choice she makes, especially given the circumstances. Her best friend was just murdered, but she willingly gets into a vehicle with someone she’s never met before.
Along the way there are obvious signs that there’s something completely off about the guy, Josh, but Charlie decides to shrug them off. Literally all the red flags are being waved in her face, but she still gets into the car with him instead of having her boyfriend give her a ride in a few days’ time.
I don’t want to completely spoil the plot, but I will say that Charlie is given not one, not two, but three opportunities to escape from her situation. The first two times, she balks. It’s almost easy to forgive her for this, because in both of those situations, the logistics aren’t quite smoothed out. At most, she’d be causing a scene, not actually escaping.
However, by the third time, Charlie is convinced Josh is not only not who he says he is, but that he’s also the Campus Killer. When she’s given the opportunity to make a break for it, she instead willingly gets back into the car with him because she’s determined to stop him from hurting any other girls. This seemingly weak, dull character thinks she’s going to kill someone and even refers to herself as a “femme fatale,” which is frankly just annoying. No one is dumb enough to willingly get into a car with a serial killer and take one for the team purely for the sake of it.
Aside from Charlie’s doltish choices, the rest of the story is unfortunately not great either. Most of the story takes place with Charlie and Josh in a car, which makes for an incredibly slow-moving story. It’s mostly just small talk with Charlie questioning the exact same things over and over ad nauseam. The action doesn’t begin until about three quarters of the way through, and by that point I had no interest in the story or the characters. There are twists and secrets littered throughout the last portion of the book, but they’re either so far out of left field that I didn’t believe them or they were so predictable I wasn’t entertained by them.
The final chapter of the book, which takes place years in the future, was easily the most frustrating part of the entire book. Again, I don’t want to spoil the story, but it’s hard to root for a character who marries the person who gaslights them.
I might be shelving any new Sager books for the time being, because this very quickly put me off his work.