*The author includes on her website the following warnings about the content: ” . . . graphic depictions of domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, and substance abuse.” I will also add fatphobia and “school shooting” to the list.
Rarely do I include a publisher-provided synopsis because I often find them either vague or pumped up to sound like the last best-selling smash hit in the same genre. But Reine’s synopsis is spot on:
It’s a smoky autumn morning when Kimber Clark gets the alert: her kindergartner’s school is on lockdown. She’s still drunk when she joins other parents outside the police tape, but not so drunk that she can’t pick up details: Zack Linzy, a high schooler, opened fire in the school cafeteria, killing four people. But that’s not possible. Zack Linzy is a freak, a boy who assaulted Kimber’s daughter, and Kimber killed him with a shovel two days ago.
The police are looking for the school shooter in the wrong place, and the real killer might get away with it. Kimber can’t tell the police they’ve got the wrong suspect without showing them where she buried the body. No — she has to solve a school shooting, absolve her daughter’s abuser, and make sure the real killer comes to justice. All without getting caught for the murder she committed.
Author S.M. Reine noted immediately for fans that She Killed Him First is nothing like her urban fantasy series (which I love!). It’s incredibly realistic, a deep dive into the shoes of someone who is incessantly drunk. Typically, I can’t stand memoirs and fiction about alcoholism because it just feels like this person is constantly drinking. However, Reine is able to convincingly, and even sympathetically, enter the mind and body of an alcoholic. The way Kimber thinks she can do certain tasks while drink because she feels more focused, the way she loves her daughter but also feels that her child behaves like a selfish animal. All these thoughts and emotions are given space to feel valid, but there’s also room for readers to realize Kimber’s perception of herself is off, and that her daughter is responding to untreated trauma and an unstable family.
The other parent, Kimber’s husband, leaves the home and texts occasionally. He’s camping with friends or he’s in his cabin working remotely, away from his “fat ass” wife and the daughter he claims he was tricked into having. The relationship is so convincingly toxic without making Kimber or her husband seem like caricatures.
Even more convincing is twenty-four year-old educator Felicia Freethy. Felicia was the co-teacher (or was she the mentee?) of the kindergarten class that Kimber’s daughter attends. During a school shooting, which is the catalyst for She Killed Him First, the kindergarten teacher is killed, making Felicia believe she’ll be the replacement. Although Felicia doesn’t use any mind-altering substances, you’d swear she did. She seems to think she’s the co-teacher, but other staff at the school refer to the teacher as Felicia’s mentor, suggesting Felicia doesn’t understand her role.
She’s also easily influenced by her mother, a gun-toting former model who bullies Felicia, and her boyfriend, police officer Brandon Boyle. I swear I knew Felicia and Office Boyle. It was eerie. Felicia is a blank slate twenty-something who knows she’s too pudgy for her mom and that her boyfriend likes fondling her breasts in a way she finds uncomfortable. No one listens to her as she tries to perform her way through life satisfactorily. Officer Boyle is the face of every man you don’t want to meet. He’s like to take a dump with the door open, be handsy when she’s saying no, and pushes Felicia into carrying a gun to protect herself after the school shooting. He’s the cop you’d never want to encounter. He’s the cop who’d be fired for exchanging sexual favors for getting off with a warning — that sort of guy.
The entire novel is set in Nevada, and Reine, who lives in the state, captures it perfectly. The smoke from California fires cause people to wear filtration masks. Conservative residents and gun lobbyists push for teachers to be armed in schools, demonstrating the politics of the state clearly. I never forgot the pervasive environment nor what the population demographics would look like. You don’t forget where you are. Because the novel is set in the last couple of years, Reine’s characters will mention Trump, and I think back to 2020 when Nevada seemed to take forever to count votes in Trump vs. Biden.
Felicia’s and Kimber’s stories collide when Kimber accuses Felicia, who has claimed she saw who the shooter was, of being a liar. How could Felicia have seen Zack kill four people in an elementary school when Kimber murdered him and hid the body two days before the shooting? Tension mounts as readers wonder why Felicia would lie, what benefit is there. How does it all fit together? And will the real shooter kill anyone else before he’s caught while police continue to look for a teen who is already dead?
An excellent read from an endlessly talented author.