“One Kick” Chelsea Cain (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

One Kick by Chelsea Cain book cover

Kick Lannigan is a young adult who has never been allowed to escape her past. Local journalists want to fill space with follow-up stories, particularly on the anniversary of her rescue or when another child is reported missing. Her only mother has published an autobiography and is more than happy to carve out a secondary career as the mother of an abducted daughter. No one asks if this is healthy for Kick.

Fortunately, in Chelsea Cain, Kick has a creator who does treat her with empathy and compassion. What happened to Kick when she was abducted is hinted at rather than spelt out in explicit detail. Kick is understandably conflicted. When she was rescued, she couldn’t remember the name her parents gave her, because she’d become so accustomed to the name her captor gave her. Despite the conditions she’d been kept in, she thinks of her captor as a father figure (something he’d encouraged), not helped by the fact her biological father walked out of the family home soon after her rescue. It’s implied he had a problem with the way his wife and Kick’s mother lapped up the media attention. Various therapies failed to help until Kick discovered self-defence classes and, as soon as she was legally able to, she bought a licenced gun.

Returning to her apartment after a session at the shooting range, Kick discovers an intruder, John Bishop. He doesn’t harm her, but asks for her help. A boy, Adam Rice, has been reported missing. Kick already knew: she and her ‘brother’, James who lives in the apartment below, have been monitoring reports of missing children. James’s specialities are coding, gaming and spotting patterns. He’s two years older than Kick and prone to panic attacks so they text and keep in touch regularly. Kick also feels guilty. When she was rescued, she implemented the plan she’d been repeatedly trained to carry out and typed a command in her captor’s computer. Afterwards she learnt that command wiped her captor’s computer files, effectively preventing the FBI from tracing and stopping other paedophiles and other distributors of child pornography known to her captor. John Bishop is not FBI but the magnate he works for is a powerful ally for the FBI so Bishop has access to FBI resources and shares information to suit. Guilt propels Kick to go with Bishop.

He takes her to a house where Adam Rice had been spotted. The house is now empty, but Bishop believes Kick’s knowledge might help find evidence. What Bishop has not prepared for is that dragging Kick along might trigger repressed memories. Kick soon finds the “safe room”, the false wall that conceals a child-sized hiding space designed to be used when visitors came or the house was searched. Unfortunately it’s booby-trapped and Bishop and Kick escape with injuries. Meanwhile James scoured the internet for any information he could find on Bishop and comes up largely blank. Kick remembers a series of photographs of Bishop as a boy. Earlier photographs are shared with another boy, clearly a brother. But there is no brother in later photographs. James trawls through missing persons reports but they can’t find Bishop’s brother, strongly suggesting the brother is no longer living. Kick concludes that’s why Bishop’s so interested in missing children.

Bishop doesn’t stop there. He persuades Kick to visit her captor, now in the prison infirmary with renal failure, to see if he will give them anything. Bishop raises his eyebrows at her choice of a yellow dress for the visit but doesn’t comment until after their visit when he comments on her calling her captor “Daddy”. She explains it was the only way her captor would give them anything. He gives them a description, a man Kick knew as Klugman.

When they return to Kick’s apartment, Kick insists on going to James’s apartment first because that’s where she left her dog. She was originally abducted at the age of six when her dog ran away and she was looking for him. Her captor offered to help. She couldn’t remember her original name, but never forgot her dog’s name. Alarm bells ring when they discover James’s apartment has been broken into and James is found critically injured. In hospital, Kick learns the marks on James’s wrists she’d always assumed where down to self-harm were actually ligature marks from restraints. As well as stab wounds, James has fresh ligature marks.

Kick remembers how she met James. Her captor, Mel, had taken her to Klugman’s house and down to the basement. Kick remembers hearing children play in a nearby school yard and sounds she identifies as the ocean. The basement had a mattress and travel pictures on the wall, pictures of places James dreamed of travelling to. It was used as a movie studio. Mel referred to his contacts and child abductees as family so James and Kick saw themselves as brother and sister. James had never been reported missing: his mother had traded him for drug money. Because no one knew James was missing, no one was looking for him. He was released, i.e. abandoned as a teenager. On hearing of Kick’s rescue, he moved to be near her, the only family he knew.

Now Kick has fresh impetus: can she and Bishop follow her trail of shattered, partial memories, find Adam Rice and bring Klugman to justice?

Kick is very likable. One moment she’s adult, self-aware and logical, prepared to turn detective to help others who have gone missing. Another she can be child-like, remembering the girl whose childhood was stolen. She doesn’t cast blame or use her past abuse as an excuse for not taking responsibility for the adult she’s become. Bishop is less likable: he seems too focused on results without caring who gets hurt on the way until his past is revealed and his actions become more understandable. At first he seems harsh towards Kick but then softens when he sees what it’s costing her to help him. The pair make a complementary team: Bishop’s logic and Kick’s intuition. Kick and James are both very much products of the environments they found themselves in and Chelsea Cain’s focus is very much on the issues the pair face as adults, not on raking through their childhoods for sensationalist details. “One Kick” is a sensitively written, compelling, fast-paced thriller, with a great, engaging main character in Kick Lannigan.



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