Part-time Camden resident Michael Koryta plays a complicated game of “button, button, who’s got the button?” in his new thriller, “If She Wakes.”

When Tara Beckley, a senior at Maine’s fictional Hammel College, agrees to drive a visiting professor to his speaking engagement, she expects the job to be easy and straightforward. She doesn’t imagine that she’ll be asked to follow an alternate route, stop by a river and exit the vehicle, then have her photo taken, along with that of a stray dog. Tara barely has time to register how bizarre the requests are before a car rams into her vehicle, killing the professor instantly and sending her into the water.

Courtesy of Michael Koryta

Tara survives the collision, but just barely. She winds up at a Boston hospital in a vegetative state, a prisoner of “locked-in syndrome” which leaves her conscious but unable to move or communicate. Her family is with her, but her mother is an emotional wreck and her stepfather is already talking about yanking the plug. Only her older sister Shannon seems ready to fight for the correct treatment.

Meanwhile, Hollywood-stunt-driver-turned-insurance-investigator Abby Kaplan visits the crash site and determines that this was no accident, that the driver must have intended to strike Tara’s car. Abby has protective feelings for the young woman, perhaps because she is still trying to assuage her own guilt and trauma at having killed her pop star boyfriend in a wreck back in California. The book’s first reference to her sums up her mindset in a single sentence that captures the rationalizations that allow her to drink on the job: “The case was so simple that Abby Kaplan decided to stop for a beer on the way to the scene.”

Lying in the hospital bed, Tara needs all the allies she can get, no matter how impaired they might be. Someone very dangerous has been assigned to extract some crucial information from her. Once finished, he will kill her and perhaps her entire family.

Tara, Shannon and Abby are interesting and vivid characters – strong, resourceful and flawed women capable of facing the worst adversity. Koryta, the author of “How It Happened,” “Those Who Wish Me Dead” and 10 other novels, gives each major female character at least one set piece in which they demonstrate their grit and courage. He especially imbues Tara with the right combination of fear and fortitude, as someone in terrible jeopardy but not succumbing to self-pity.

But the real star of “If She Wakes” is its villain, the babyfaced hitman known as Dax Blackwell. Koryta writes, “The kid looked barely old enough to buy cigarettes, and he didn’t say much, but he always had this faint smile that suggested he was laughing at you, the kind of smile that made you want to check to see if your fly was unzipped or if there was food stuck in your teeth.”

Koryta keeps the suspense cranked high, but the narrative’s urgency spikes whenever Dax is in the scene. He’s charming, surprising and deadly, and Koryta puts him to good use throughout the entire thriller.

As engrossing as it is, however, “If She Wakes” does contain a couple of structural hurdles.

Once a reader knows the set-up of “If She Wakes,” the novel’s title almost guarantees there will be scenes of Tara being told to blink in response to yes-or-no questions. Such interrogations can become repetitive and tedious, but Koryta handles them well, mainly by making the reader aware of Tara’s engaging interior voice as she struggles to interact with the outside world while searching her memory for the information people are dying for.

“If She Wakes” also plays with a familiar thriller trope, the durable old MacGuffin. Rather than a device used to trap tigers in the Scottish Highlands, here the MacGuffin is a cell phone of some kind, one equipped with facial recognition features. Other than Dax’s client, no one really seems to care about the contents of the device, only that it be returned. As the phone moves from character to character, the game of high-tech hot-potato may grow a little tiresome for some readers.

Koryta has worked as both a private investigator and a newspaper reporter. Not surprisingly, his prose is engaging and well detailed, but still concise. He’s more than capable of eliciting a gasp with an unexpected, thoroughly logical revelation.

With its devious plotting, likable main characters and unconventionally frightening antagonist, “If She Wakes” may keep readers up well into the night.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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