While journalists are finding it more and more difficult to obtain employment that is financially secure, in these turbulent times, broadcasting the truth about our world and politics is perhaps even more crucial than ever. In “Killer Story,” author Matt Witten explores that subject through the eyes of Petra Kovach, a journalist who has been laid off several times and who desperately wants to keep her current job. She also is obsessed with discovering the truth about the murder of a friend, Olivia, who was killed in her Harvard dorm room after becoming a celebrated right-wing You Tuber.
Petra and her boyfriend, Jonah, have moved all over the country following her jobs. He’s in technology and can work wherever they end up, but he’s getting tired of moving and wants to settle down. Petra is terrified that if she loses her job, he will give up on their relationship. So when her boss shares the devastating news that she’s going to be laid off, Petra pitches him on her idea to investigate Livvy’s death. In her desperation to keep her job, she exaggerates the evidence she has that might make a good podcast. She starts lying about anything and everything in her efforts to convince him to give her a chance. She says she’s done a podcast before (nope), and she also says she learned a big secret about the murder (she learned that there is a big secret but she has no idea what it is). Her boss agrees to give her two weeks to save her job.
As Petra begins her investigation, she uncovers clues that she believes point to the real killer. The Harvard professor with whom Olivia had been romantically involved, and who had actually been tried for her murder and acquitted, meets with her and shares what he knows. But as her dives into seemingly sure-fire leads and hunches prove futile, Petra grows more and more frantic. She must succeed or she will lose everything she holds dear, including her job and her boyfriend.
Witten creates a likable main character, and we really want Petra to prevail against all odds. But as she sacrifices more and more of her ethics and her values to get to the truth, we start to wonder what her real goal is. Is she selflessly searching to obtain justice for the young girl she befriended all those years ago, or is she trying to secure her place in the annals of journalists who hit it big? Or even just trying to keep her job? And Witten provides other characters whose ethics are also not pure and whose actions force Petra to fight harder to keep “her” story. It’s a lesson in unbridled ambition, but it’s also a lesson in getting caught up in something that becomes more than one person can handle. And it’s a cautionary tale in the importance of trusting a loved one when we aren’t sure of our moral compass. Petra doesn’t do that, and it might be the biggest mistake she makes.
On a more basic level, it’s also a great mystery. We really don’t know who the perpetrator is, although we’ve been given clues aplenty. There are twists and turns, all cleverly plotted and ingenuously placed, that divert our suspicion until the final reveal.
What Witten accomplishes with “Killer Story” is a multifaceted novel. It’s certainly a murder mystery, albeit a cold case murder, but it’s also a character study into a woman under pressure and how that stress causes her to bend her beliefs, her ethics, and her relationships. We ponder how far we would go in that same situation, and while we feel empathy for Petra, we know that all is not okay in her world. Book clubs? You’ll be talking well into the night about this complex story.
And if you like fast-paced thrillers, don’t miss his previous book, “The Necklace.”
Note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.