"Dying for Christmas" Tammy Cohen

Dying For Christmas

I am missing. Held captive by a blue-eyed stranger. To mark the twelve days of Christmas, he gives me a gift every day, each more horrible than the last. The twelfth day is getting closer. After that, there'll be no more Christmas cheer for me. No mince pies, no carols. No way out.

But I have a secret. No-one has guessed it. Will you?

Since hearing Tammy Cohen speak about "How to Write a Psychological Thriller" at the Killer Women Crime Festival this autumn, I had been wanting to read one of her books - there are three on my TBR pile............ Then this title came up again in another high profile list of recommendations and I felt that I just had to read it, especially with it being the festive season!

I'm so glad I haven't left it any longer to discover a writer who creates characters who are so eerie and chilling! This is such a great 'alternative' Christmas read!

The first chapter starts with a killer opening line and I was totally intrigued:

Chances are by the time you finish reading this, I'll already be dead.

In fact the whole of the chapter is just a succession of killer lines which present us with the very three dimensional, vibrant character of Jessica, who we immediately learn a lot about from her blunt tone, down to earth comments and open revelations about her unhappy childhood, lack lustre relationship and her odd character traits that imply some sort of mental health issues. The voice of Jessica is very direct and informal and I felt like I was being spoken to directly. It's a clever technique of Cohen's to ensure the reader quickly engages.

Oh well, you live and learn. Except in my case you don't.

Jessica invites a sense of confidence between the reader and herself. The way in which she addresses the reader means that from the outset you are very quickly aligned with her and caught up in her story. Chapter one leaves us with so many hints about Jessica's background and so many questions about what might happen next that it is impossible not to read on - Cohen has opened her thriller perfectly with all the right ingredients, in the right quantity, with a perfectly pitched voice that leaves the reader desperate to for more.

The story opens with Jessica shopping on Christmas Eve and meeting a random stranger while sharing a table in a cramped coffee shop. Dominic is handsome, charming and alluring. As Jessica acknowledges:

Men who look like that don't exist in my life. Not in 3D form anyway.

I knew men like him didn't fall in love with women like me. 

Through Jessica's first person narrative, Cohen has implied that she is vulnerable, unhappy and perhaps someone who is reckless, irrational and prone to taking risks. The reference to therapy, voices in her head and a dysfunctional family history create tension. The sense of danger and imminent threat is obvious but Jessica's slightly quirky narrative makes it believable and tangible. The references to life and death could seem too clunky and leading but actually they add a kind of sarcasm and wry humour that makes Jessica even more interesting.

What I was after was an experience, a memory I could store in tissue paper and take out every now and then in years to come when no one was around.

I wanted a break. I wanted to be someone else for a bit, with someone else's life. You're a long time dead, I told myself.

Jessica knows that the reader is not going to be totally convinced by how easily she ends up in such a precarious predicament -even with the knowledge of her homelife it still feels rather unlikely that a grown woman in a stable relationship would go home with a complete stranger, but Jessica knows this and very openly admits she was foolish and completely out of her depth. I liked the originality in Cohen's plot that our protagonist is not duped, abducted or drugged by the villain, but actually willingly agrees to go along with him knowing its the wrong thing to do - and takes responsibility for this.

What on earth was I thinking? What would possess an educated young woman, well versed in the perils of stranger danger - a young woman with a long term boyfriend- to get in a car with a man she'd only just met? And if you have to ask you're probably too clear headed, too normal, not lonely enough to understand.

And there it was. The thing that lurked beneath the perfect glass surface of our encounter. The thing that I'd been trying not to face. .....And it was all my fault.

The chapters are short and all end with a short sentence that forms a cliffhanger, revelation or confession. Cohen's writing style is candid and tight. This is mirrored by the short chapters and suggestion that events are going to take place quickly and over a short period of time. All these factors work brilliantly in encouraging the reader to keep reading as it feels like this is going to be a clear, straightforward story that will be over in a relatively short time frame. Its accessible, informal style convinces us that we have it all the characters worked out and all the motivations sown up.

Well, any lover of psychological thrillers will know how foolish it is to ever think that!

Once Jessica finds herself trapped in the flat with Dominic, sentences like "All in good time", "Time to find out" and the suggestion that Dominic is totally in control, fully prepared and has meticulously planned the whole thing create a sense of inevitability and finality. Dominic's intention to keep her in the flat for the 12 days of Christmas, every day presenting her with a gift which reveals something more creepy, unpleasant or shocking about him, give the novel real shape and builds tension and gives it a clear timeframe. This is a story that will unfold over 12 days and then....... well, isn't that why we are all reading on?!

Dominic is frightening because he is so ordinary. These are always the most scary kinds of psychopaths - the ones that appear like you or me, charming, normal, intelligent, articulate, professional. As we spend more time with him trapped in the flat, his revelations about his childhood, his relationship with his mother and his sister are deeply deeply disturbing. He is both a compelling and repulsive character.

Jessica's narrative is broken up with sections from the character of Kim, a workaholic detective with her own issues, unhappiness and internal conflict. At first I wondered if the plot actually needed another character and sub plot that was also very emotionally tense as I was always keen to get back to the story of Jessica and Dominic - which held enough psychological intrigue for me - but actually as the novel progresses, Kim's role becomes more important, significant and then completely intrinsic to the whole success of the book. She's a clever lady this Tammy Cohen!

During her entrapment we learn much more about Jessica. She makes some really intriguing comments about her family history - I loved the fact that her parents bought her 6 sessions with a therapist for a Christmas present! It's clear she's never quite fitted in anywhere, that she could be prone to mental illness or potentially suffering from an undiagnosed one; she struggles to make friends and frequently "disappears into the recesses of her head" - she hears voices and self harms.......I began to wonder whether it was sympathy or suspicion that I was feeling for this complicated character. There are clues, hints and tiny suggestions that all is not as it seems. Is Jessica a reliable narrator?

Part Two. I love a "Part Two" as I know that this is the midway twist, the moment when the rug is pulled out from under my feet and the moment when I have to totally rethink everything I thought I knew. And boy, Cohen does not disappoint.

Kim comes into her own with her reluctance to accept that all is what is seems. She begins to plant more questions in the reader's mind and is persistent in her belief that people are rarely as they seem. As the investigation gathers more information and delves deeper, there are more inconsistencies and unexplained aspects of Jessica's story that start to flag up more questions and suspicions. There is a new voice, there are more twists.

To be honest, this is a real psychological drama as much as a thriller. It is really clever - I underestimated quite how so until I had finished it and then felt I had to start again from page one. All the pieces kept slotting into place as I raced through the last pages and even long after I've finished, more ideas or realisations kept crossing my mind. The book is billed as a cross between "Misery" and "Gone Girl" and this probably captures it as well as any comparison I could make. I liked it a lot. I will be recommending it and I will even be buying it for a few friends this Christmas! I really enjoy a book filled with double meaning where nothing is ever what you think and Cohen totally delivers on this front. Her clever and thoroughly planned exposition is really satisfying and impressive.

I can't say any more without spoiling it for you all but honestly, this story is not just about one twisted mind, it is about several! And who knew, that Tammy Cohen, that lovely, smiling, attractive lady who was so warm and approachable during her talks at Killer Women Festival could be capable of something so deeply disturbing and twisted!!!

Happy Christmas!

For more recommendations, reviews and bookish chat, please find me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)


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