When You Find Me, P. J. Vernon’s debut, has so many elements within that it is hard to imagine a first-time author successfully pulling it off. There are threads dealing with politics, race relations, family dynamics, addiction, mental health, abuse, power, and above all, secrets. Thankfully, what could have been a convoluted mess synthesizes into a deeply thrilling and wholly satisfying reading experience.
When You Find Me begins as Gray King Godfrey travels with her up-and-coming political bigwig husband to the South Carolina estate where she was raised. She can think of better ways to spend the holidays than visiting with her mother (who manages to be critical of every decision Gray has ever made) and her recently-divorced sister (who seems incapable of making a poor decision in their mother’s eyes), but at least she can reconnect with some of her childhood friends.
After a wild night at the local bar, Gray wakes up with the worst hangover – a feeling she is all too familiar with – in a quiet house and an empty bed. Where is her husband Paul? Vaguely remembering Paul’s anger when he caught Gray being a bit too intimate with her high school crush, Gray realizes that Paul probably needed some time to cool off – after all, with his upcoming bid for election, appearances are all that matter to him.
Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, local African-American detective – Nina Palmer – is notified of an abandoned car which turns out to be Paul Godfrey’s, sending her down a convoluted investigative path. Her inquiries into the King family is further complicated when she discovers that her ailing Aunt has been accepting payments from the King family matriarch, Joanna, for years. Aunt Tilda was once the nanny for the King children, Gray and Charlotte, but was let go years ago. So why is Joanna still sending her checks?
As Nina explores all the avenues of investigation this missing persons case opens, Gray receives mysterious contact from a woman named Annie. It seems that Annie has some valuable information about Paul’s disappearance – but she also seems to know more about Paul than she should. Was it possible that Paul was having an affair?
P. J. Vernon has written one of those books where nothing is what it seems. Just when readers think they have some small piece of the puzzle figured out, Vernon twists the expectation and heads down a totally different path. There is a brilliantly placed and paced reveal late in the novel that will have readers smacking their forehead wondering how they missed such a vital clue. But even this revelation morphs into more complexity before reaching the ultimate conclusion.
In terms of debut novels, When You Find Me, is an example of one where the author was clearly destined to tell this story. Any minor flaws readers might have – a slow beginning, too much reliance on character tropes, or a too-perfect detective – will eventually be revealed to be well-executed plans intentionally used to lull readers with expectations of familiarity, so that when the rug is eventually pulled out from under them the only possible reaction is shock and awe. This is a debut that will have readers eager to experience whatever the author is going to provide as a follow-up.
This review is based on the audiobook version of this title.