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Book Talk: Downing, ‘He Started It’

Imagine going on a road trip with your grandfather. Just you and Grandpa’s ashes in an SUV. And your brother Eddie, and his wife Krista, and your sister Portia, and your husband Felix. Of course, this is not the kind of zany road trip that we saw in the movie “Animal House.” It’s far more calamitous.

Now imagine that you need to follow the same route that you took 20 years ago when Grandpa was driving a van with you, the same two siblings, and your other sister Nikki. Only that time, you and the sibs had been abducted by Grandpa. However, your parents hadn’t notified the police because Grandpa made a phone call to them every night, and each of you kids got to say a few carefully monitored words to them, assuring them that you were okay and having a good time.

In her absolutely fantastic book, “He Started It” (2020, 383 pages), Samantha Downing does a masterful job of switching back and forth between the two trips. The current journey is undertaken (I didn’t mean that as a pun) because Grandpa has left a ton of money to the grandkids if they follow the same route, sprinkle his ashes in a western desert, and don’t spend any time in jail. The initial estimate is about $1 million each, but there’s more that the lawyer hasn’t evaluated yet.

You bring a journal detailing the first trip with you. Its title is “Your Feelings: A Guide, Thoughtful Questions for Thoughtful Girls.” It’s written in Nikki’s voice and is sort of a travelogue, noting each stop at some bizarre attraction along the way, like the place where Bonnie and Clyde were turned into Swiss cheese by a hail of bullets or the Devil’s Rope Museum in Texas, a reminder of the role that barbed wire played in the taming of the west.

Your route isn’t a straight line from Georgia, where you start, to California. You sort of zigzag, hitting diverse states like Kansas, and Idaho, and Nevada. Along this somewhat circuitous journey, you’re being stalked by people in a black truck just as you were followed by a guy in a car during the first excursion.

As the journey unfolds, you discover that your spouse smokes cigarettes, which is absolutely against the policy of the corporation for which you both work, every person in the SUV is an inveterate liar, and there seems to be a game of RISK in play, with people continually shifting alliances.

Oh, and by the way, this is a murder mystery, although you may not realize it for a while. A lot of murder. A lot of mystery.

Ms. Downing, a new author, has written two other books: her debut novel, “My Lovely Wife” (Reviewed in this column on May 25), and a third book which was published last year, “For Your Own Good” (to be reviewed soon).

I love Downing’s sense of irony, her mild sarcasm, and her skill as an entertaining storyteller. I’m confident that you will, too.


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Jim Glynn may be contacted at



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