One Step Too Far: A Novel (A Frankie Elkin Novel)
“One Step Too Far takes us on a harrowing journey into the dark wilderness of the human heart . . .”
Frankie Elkin finds lost people. It’s what she does.
A transient with nothing more to her name than a carry-on suitcase and an old flip phone, she’s a recovered alcoholic who searches for missing children, lost drug addicts, and victims of violence. She’s not an ex-cop, she has no training, and she isn’t paid for what she does. She’s an outsider who’s always out of her depth and always uncomfortable.
Five years ago, Tim O’Day disappeared while hiking with friends in the Popo Agie Wilderness near Ramsey, Wyoming. Something about the case compels Frankie to join in a new search conducted by Tim’s father, who’s obsessed with finding his son’s remains.
An arduous hike into the wilderness quickly becomes a nightmare as Frankie and the team find their lives endangered not only by the harsh conditions but also by a human predator intent on concealing years of horrible carnage.
One Step Too Far is Lisa Gardner’s second thriller featuring Frankie Elkin, following up on Before She Disappeared (2021). A #1 New York Times bestselling author, Gardner has written numerous thrillers including the award-winning novel The Neighbor (2009). She’s also the author of more than a dozen romance novels under the name Alicia Scott.
This particular story is compelling for several reasons. As the narrator explains at the beginning, at least 1,600 people have disappeared and remain missing on national public lands, and the fact that Frankie impulsively volunteers to hike for a week in the wilderness with no experience, no training, and no physical attributes that would ensure her survival is cause for concern that she may quickly join that number.
As well, the palpable tensions among the search team—including the friends who accompanied Tim five years ago, the obsessive father, a dog handler and her cadaver dog, a Bigfoot enthusiast, and a local who knows the area—immediately generate a revolving list of suspects. Frankie senses that everyone knows more than they’re admitting, and one of them is likely a threat to all their lives.
Gardner has a very confident approach to storytelling. She carefully portions out the answers to all of Frankie’s (and our) questions, one or two at a time, chapter by chapter, cliffhanger after cliffhanger, maximizing the suspense while stretching our patience close to the breaking point.
Close but not quite there, because we keep reading on, obsessed with the mystery.
This is the secret of the bestselling page turner, friends: unrelenting suspense fueled by a stingy author parceling out the clues one by one, bit by bit, knowing the hook is set and all she needs to do is keep reeling us in, a few inches at a time.
An experienced hiking enthusiast and animal rescue worker, Gardner does an excellent job with her manipulation of the setting and the challenges it poses to Frankie and the others, as well as her use of Daisy the cadaver dog, whom we’d love to be able to give just one great big hug.
The author also earns extra credit for her depiction of alcoholism, in the ongoing struggle Frankie must deal with on a daily basis and in Frankie’s sad memories of her alcoholic father. Gardner treats this subject with compassion and understanding, adding an extra dimension to her protagonist’s intriguing personality while also exploring a subject that needs to be better understood.
Gardner falters, however, when she wraps up her tale. The ultimate solution to the mystery of Tim’s disappearance and the ongoing threat to the party, once it’s finally revealed to us, is rather anti-climatic—a far cry from the whiz-bang conclusion you’d expect from a nerve-wracking thriller. Gardner seems much more interested in coyly stringing out the mystery to the bitter end than in smacking us between the eyes with a shocking finale.
As well, the epilogue tacked on to tie up all the various loose ends is drawn out and a little sappy, more appropriate to one of her romance novels than a suspense thriller. It could have been chopped, or at least drastically trimmed, and the novel would have been better for it.
Nevertheless, One Step Too Far takes us on a harrowing journey into the dark wilderness of the human heart, where fear and desperation reveal exactly who we are. It’s definitely worth your time.