Creepy men populate Lori Rader-Day’s new novel, and not just garden-variety creepy men. In “The Lucky One,” these creepy men come in all shapes and sizes—internet sex companions and co-workers and cops, not to mention fathers and uncles and sort-of stepfathers. The sheer volume of creepy men chills the air and foreshadows an as-yet-undetermined evil waiting to emerge from the creepiness. Something bad is about to happen.
The ironic title refers to the novel’s ironically-named heroine, Alice Fine, who was kidnapped but rescued as a small child. Lucky because she was found unharmed, a rare occurrence in the world of missing persons. The opposite of lucky because her one hour in captivity, at a tender age, forever reshaped Alice’s psyche. She is not fine. As the story unfolds and the circumstances of that toddler kidnapping get scrutinized and clarified, Alice finds that the foundation upon which she has built all her memories—her life—is hardly durable.
Alice’s adult world revolves around a paying job in her father’s development company and a volunteer job in a group focused on solving the mysteries of (mostly) long-disappeared people. The first is an obligation and the second an obsession. Both carry their own challenges, and problems. It is through Alice’s work with an online community called the Doe Pages that a jumble of seemingly disconnected events coalesce, most importantly in relation to Merrily Cruz, who is immersed in her own mystery.
The untangling of the strands leads us closer to big answers about Alice’s kidnapper, Merrily’s de facto father figure, a horrific work zone “accident,” and the Fine and King construction company’s dubious ownership situation.
This novel, Rader-Day’s fifth, rumbles along on the merits of beautifully designed characters, continuously clever plot turns, and a buzz of suspense, all the while skillfully exploring the notion of identity. The Doe Page community, with its shrewd, dedicated volunteer work force, relentlessly follows all available tiny clues to put names to bodies, ultimately hoping to give survivors a sense of closure. Alice and Merrily, their own identities suddenly in question, come to rely on their new community as a kind of surrogate family leveraged in the stead of their own now-dubious blood relations. Alice and Merrily’s empathy for all those John and Jane Does increases proportionately.
Rader-Day sculpts a realistic modern-day Chicago backdrop with a crisp prose style that imbues her characters and situation with charm, determination, humor, integrity and vulnerability. It’s a subtly empowering story in which the female characters instigate the mechanisms by which justice imposes its will on all the creepy men. With this novel, Rader-Day continues her ascension to the upper echelon of crime writers, a smart, entertaining author applying her enormous talent in the service of another top-rate work of literature.
“The Lucky One”
By Lori Rader-Day
William Morrow-HarperCollins Publishers, 400 pages
Donald G. Evans is the author of a novel and story collection, as well as the editor of two anthologies of Chicago literature, most recently “Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry.” He is the Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.