The Next Time I Die
(Hard Case Crime Series #154)
By Jason Starr
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — June 2022
ISBN: 9781789099515 — Paperback — 256 pp.
Hard Case Crime has been on quite a roll with their releases of late, and this new novel by Jason Starr generated all sorts of positive buzz up through its release this past month. All those great reviews are warranted, The Next Time I Die is an imaginative creation of literary depth and irresistible diversion. It’s a novel that should appeal to fans of both crime and speculative fiction genres, while also gratifying readers of contemporary general fiction that don’t normally dip into genre pools.
“I saw you, Steven Blitz”
With these words spoken by an unknown male voice, as stab to the gut, and a fade to black for the protagonist at the close of chapter one, the wild ride of The Next Time I Die truly begins.
Before: Lawyer Steven Blitz is busily working to prepare defense for a high profile serial killer murder trial that should help launch his career to the next level. His agitated wife comes in to interrupt him, demanding a divorce and ordering him to get out of the house. She declares she can no longer stand him, and has never really loved him. She has been having an affair with her best friend and wants him and their stagnant marriage gone from her life.
After trying to talk more with her, Steven reluctantly does leave, gathering his work and making a call to his brother saying he’s headed over and needs to crash at his place. En route there amid a winter night’s storm, Steven swerves at a turn in the road to avoid sliding into a collision, and safely continues on. During a quick stopover at a store to pick up some things, Steven witnesses a man and woman having an argument in the parking lot. When the woman’s safety seems threatened, Steven chooses to step in.
A painful stab to Steven’s stomach, his vision going dim, and that mysterious unknown voice coming from the void, nowhere, somewhere.
Expecting to be dead, Steven instead finds himself regaining consciousness in a hospital. Only he quickly realizes things are not right. The nurses and doctors know nothing of any attack in a parking lot. There is no knife wound. Steven was injured in a car crash, hitting a tree while sliding on an icy, snowy stretch of the highway.
Even more strangely, Steven’s wife is there, rushing to his side, full of concern and affection. And with her is their little daughter, a child Steven has no recognition of, but who is worried about her father. The news on the television makes no mention of the growing coronavirus concerns, or fiascos from the dangerous fool who’s occupying the White House. Instead the anchors seem to be concerned about conflicts in India/Pakistan, and how President Gore will be handling things.
As Steven comes to accept the insanity of what seems to have occurred he tries to figure out how it did and when divergences of timelines from his memory and the reality he now finds himself amid must have started. He also quickly realizes he has to pretend all is fine and he’s not confused, lest they keep him in the hospital over worries of unknown neurological problems – or perhaps side-effects of the cancer Steven has recently been treated for. A cancer Steven has no memory of.
While trying to make sense of the turned about reality he faces, Steven finds some things might be nicer in this new life. He has a devoted and loving wife that he finds a recaptured attraction to. He positively adores his wonderful daughter. And here he is already a big time lawyer – a partner in the firm he had been working for on a lower rung, with a hefty bank account and life style that no longer needs a flashy defense trial of questionable morality.
But also, Steven begins to uncover some darker facts about the new found timeline. In this world, the artist serial killer he had been defending walks free, unsuspected of any crimes. Though, Steven knows better. And much to his shock, Steven finds that in this reality, he was the asshole, cheating on his wife and getting into troubles with repercussions that ignorant (and innocent) Steven must now deal with.
Starr’s crisp writing and the mysterious nature of what the protagonist faces both help propel the reader through The Next Time I Die with exceptional pacing and investment in Steven’s hapless situation and character, simply wanting to do good and find success.
And therein lies the brilliance of Starr’s novel: what makes a person good? The fantastical premise of the novel is not something Starr sets out to explain. Is this jumping multiverses? Are there really multiple versions of him that have swapped? Is the start of the novel all in Steven’s head? Or is the rest? Is someone doing this to Steven? None of the answers to these kinds of questions are what is at heart here.
Whatever its cause, whatever its nature, this ineffable phenomena is a means for Steven to discover the totality of his human moral potential, what he is at the core, or can be. Or looking from the outside perspective of author and reader, an exploration of the character of a character and the degrees to which the ambiguous possibilities and gray areas lie in us all.
From the very start of the novel, Starr paints his protagonist as someone with tremendous sincerity for virtue in himself, a preoccupation with proving his merit to himself and others. Like Linus in the pumpkin patch proclaiming righteousness while also adopting humbleness, Steven trumpets his inherent goodness with dogmatic earnestness, to others and in rationalizations to himself.
His wife’s emotional antagonism that sets off the novel is not his fault, and he’s big enough to respect it’s not really hers either. She’s simply off her meds, not speaking or thinking rationally. This is something they can work out – even if she is having an affair – because he’s willing to work things out with her, after all. Defending a serial killer with a pleas of insanity, though he knows in his heart him guilty of heinous acts and deep seeded psychological problems is okay, because the man will still be kept off the streets and be offered help, and it’ll give Steven a chance to do more and better work in defending other clients who really are innocent.
Upon the discovery of things prior Steven has done in the new timeline reality he awakens in, Steven sets out to do all he can to make better decisions than his predecessor. Cut off affairs and stop doing things that a ‘good guy’ would do. However, he wasn’t responsible for those things previous Steven did, so there shouldn’t be any negative consequences for him in this new life. He’s good and will do better.
Starr weaves a brilliant story here drawing parallels between Steven’s personality and that of the serial killer, showing what people might be capable of, lies that might be told to oneself, versions of oneself that might be created to keep an image in one’s mind to live with. As more falls apart for Steven in this new found life, is that okay still? After all, there may be an infinite multiverse of Stevens and decisions out there. If things come apart here, there’s always another version to try better at the next time I die.
The Next Time I Die is a chilling novel for what it shows through its protagonist and from the fact that Starr is offering no answers here as readers consider personal choices and possibilities of a lifetime spent inherently trying to be good, but also knowing selfish deviations from that have occurred aplenty. It’s a brutal, honest portrayal of human nature, though without going full on into nihilism. Though not a new theme to literature or other artistic forms, Starr’s approach to it here is freshly conceived and captivating.
Next up from Hard Case Crime arrives in September: The Hot Beat by Robert Silverberg. Look for a review of that up here just prior to its release.