I Finished It, And By ‘It’, I Mean ‘He Started It’ by Samantha Downing

When their grandfather dies, siblings Beth, Portia and Eddie, who haven’t seen each other in years, are forced on a road trip around the United States that mimics the same road trip they went on with him when they were younger. Will the second road trip replicate their disastrous, dark first incarnation, especially when nobody is willing to tell the truth, everyone has secrets, and everybody’s a suspect? Murder isn’t off the agenda when there’s a million dollar inheritance to be gained!

He Started It is Samantha Downing’s second book, after last year’s My Lovely Wife, and it was released in July of this year. Her debut, a memorable thriller about a murdering couple with a letdown ending, was good enough that He Started It was at the top of my anticipated 2020 reads. Because of a certain worldwide pandemic, I ended up reading this book later than I thought I would. But was the wait worth it?

In a nutshell: No. He Started It has the opposite problem of My Lovely Wife. The majority of the book, while easy to get through in a day or two, was basically a drag because the start is so, so vague, with the main character Beth purposely being secretive and holding pivotal information from the reader until she (read: Downing) feels it necessary to tell us, Oh and guess what, there was ANOTHER character here the whole time. I’m sure it’s probably just Downing trying to tell us Beth is an unreliable narrator, and like the first chapter tells us, Beth keeps saying she is a bad hero, the wrong sort of hero, a hero that silly men wouldn’t consider a hero because she’s not a perfect woman because she’s cheated on her husband and is a murderer. Of course this is all a build-up to the finale, the climax, where we have to decide for ourselves if it’s Beth or the Big Bad who is the true hero of this story. The whole vague, dragging out of plot only served to contrast Beth and the Big Bad—the latter of whom we are unaware—and have you think about why we as a society have to view women as perfect and infallible and good, innocent fluffballs of huggability and wonderment. But this whole narrative lacks self-awareness: we are reading a psychological thriller that exists in its successful state because of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl—a novel about an unreliable woman who doesn’t suffer for her actions and gets to live happily ever after. And every Gone Girl-esque book since has been replicating that same idea. You’re not the first thriller writer to have traversed these paths.

Beth and her siblings Portia and Eddie went on a road trip with their grandfather when they were younger. Grandad basically used it as a chance to abduct his grandkids from their parents and force them to view a multitude of disturbing exhibits (Bonnie and Clyde museum, for instance) all around the United States. We don’t know a lot because Beth isn’t telling us much, and it’s basically a case of being unable to complete a jigsaw puzzle because Beth is hiding half the pieces and pulling them out at random moments. This isn’t new to thrillers, that’s the whole point of the genre, but if you’ve read enough thrillers, having characters who exist to purposely delude the audience, and then go Aha! I knew X all this time! is par for the course. Nobody’s immune. But that’s enough of that.

The relationship between the three siblings is the reason I kept reading; the bitchy, catty, lying, bullshit between them, while Beth’s husband Felix and Eddie’s latest wife Krista watch on with seeming obliviousness (remember the vagueness means nobody is who they seem). As someone with a sibling who has been on long car trips, I can tell you that I loved the relationship and dialogue between the Morgans, even though the trio’s relationship is on the more extreme side of things. The whole tourist attraction part was like a better written version of Bypass: The Story of a Road, a terrible, terrible book I studied in high school, and it was interesting learning about tourist attractions in places I’ve never been to. There’s Eddie the asshole, and unlike the psychological thriller trope of The one nice guy in the book is the Big Bad, Eddie starts an asshole, stays an asshole, is constantly referred to as an asshole, and ends his story as an asshole. No beating around the bush. Beth’s on the road trip to find out the truth about one thing (she’ll randomly tell you part way through the book) and she’s also an asshole, but because she gives a diatribe about not being the perfect woman, we can somehow forgive her for murdering an innocent man for no reason other than he always asks for no mayo on food and he hits a car dashboard during a moment where everyone is stressed and upset and she expects him to never show emotions ever. Of course she can still be the protagonist (protagonist does not = hero), but Beth seems to think protagonist does = hero, because she keeps telling us how she’s not the perfect hero. You’re not a hero, Beth, because everyone in this book is hateable, it’s just some people are more hateable than others. Finally, there’s Portia, the youngest sibling, and kleptomaniac stripper. She’s always one step ahead of everyone, except when she’s first to go.

I did like the Big Bad’s big reveal, even though I did work out the other reveal, what happened with Nikki, because Downing foreshadowed it well, at least when she finally revealed Nikki’s existence. The truth about the diary was interesting as well, because we learn more about Beth as a character, about why she is so unreliable and sketchy. Her heart’s in the right place, but…holy shit book, did you forget about the murder she committed? Beth asks us if we think she is still the hero, and I’m like: Big Bad is the hero. That’s most likely Downing’s intention, and if so, kudos to her. While we hate Big Bad’s second-in-command more throughout the story, the Big Bad’s reasons for why they are doing what they are doing makes them more likeable, in my opinion. Of course, cold blooded murder in the desert is not a nice thing, but fuck Eddie. No, really, by the end reveal, fuck Eddie. What an asshole. I did love the ending of this much more than My Lovely Wife—it really does go out with a bang.

He Started It by Samantha Downing is a decent thriller that relies on a lot of overused tropes of unreliable grey morality female narrators, with a good road trip story that shows a decent portrayal of sibling rivalry and toxic dysfunctional family relationships and how abusive behaviour (like triangulation) can change the course of a family forever. It relies on obscuring key facts from the reader and sneaky, manipulative, asshole characters constantly trying to one-up each other, which, if you enjoy that, you’ll enjoy this. Unlike protagonist Beth’s words, I don’t believe you need to root for the heroine to finish or even enjoy a book—she has a habit of thinking hero and protagonist have to mean the same thing—but, hey, as it turns out, Beth isn’t the hero of this story. The big reveal is enjoyable enough, and the ending is explosive enough to make up for the rest of the journey.

Overall: 3/5

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