by Caroline B. Cooney
© 1997 by Caroline B. Cooney. Cover Art not credited.
I remember reading this as a kid and thinking it was all-caps AMAZING. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. I couldn’t put it down. I did notice a few more plot holes this time around but Wanted holds up for the most part. One of the ways that I judge these 90s teen horror/thrillers is on whether or not they succeed at being the novel they are trying to be. By that metric, I think this one works. I thought the main character Alice was done really well; I understood who she was and why she made the choices she did. Were the scenarios that Alice found herself in plausible? Not especially. But the novel moved along fast enough that I didn’t really care. Some of the things that bugged me could have been shored by staging events differently, but nothing really took me out of the story. Caroline B. Cooney doesn’t waste the reader’s time getting to the good stuff, and I appreciate that about her. I didn’t love the ending and there were some serious flaws, but Wanted was a thoroughly entertaining read from start to finish. I’m finding it hard to complain about that.
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Observations & Spoilers:
11-year-old me would have given this book a Pulitzer, but take that for what it is. 12-year-old me would have given the 1998 Academy Award for Best Picture to Lost in Space starring Matt LeBlanc (after having given it to Spiceworld and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie years prior). I guess it’s a good thing that I wasn’t in charge of handing out awards. But there is one thing this book shares with my Lost In Space experience; I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.
Wanted kicks things into high gear with its opening sentence, and then never really lets up. Caroline B. Cooney wastes no time grabbing the reader’s attention and running with it. Her book Flight 116 is Down was successful in a lot of similar ways. One added benefit to this style is that you will know pretty early on whether or not you want to finish it. The book starts out with Alice getting a frantic call from her dad, where he tells her to grab some discs from his desk and drive his beloved Corvette to meet him at the place they used to get milkshakes. She grabs the disc, but someone breaks into their house first. She hides out under the car, hears a loud crash upstairs, and then an unfamiliar man’s voice says “I killed him good.” The man leaves without discovering her, and so Alice changes out of her grease-stained clothes and heads out to meet her dad with the discs. Unfortunately for Alice, shit is about to get a whole lot worse.
When Alice gets to the milkshake spot, she hears a report on the radio that her father is dead and she is wanted for killing him. She apparently confessed to it in an email. She knows this can’t be true and so she tries to call her mom. But Mom seems convinced that Alice actually did it “because she was upset about the divorce.” So Alice decides to run. So I’m thinking: an email confession like that would never hold up in court. Also, her dad was not at the house when she left, meaning he was likely killed elsewhere and then moved (hence the loud crash she heard). So Alice being a prime suspect at this point was almost laughable. But I can totally see how a 16-year-old who just found out her father was murdered–and worse–her mom thinks she did it; I cannot blame her for rationally hashing these things out before running. She was already in fight-or-flight mode before her dad was murdered.
Now I am not going to give a blow-by-blow recap of every close encounter and narrow escape, because there are a lot of them. It was all a lot of fun. It’s impossible for me to read a story like this and not think about what I would do in a similar situation. Alice ditches the very visible Corvette at a mall, shoplifts a disguise, and hops in the back of a truck filled with junk that takes her out of town. She uses the bathroom and steals a backpack at an elementary school, which I think would have better security. I guess this was written before Columbine, but still. Anyway, she ends up on the campus of the local university where a cute guy swipes her into the computer lab. She finally gets to see the email confession (and forgives her mother a little because it does sound just like her). She also gets to see what super important thing is on her the disk that her dad made her take… and it is not what you would expect.
It looks like her dad was writing an autobiography, and it focuses on his older brother who died before Alice was born. Alice doesn’t have time to read it all so she prints it. The cute boy hooks her up with a friend’s dorm room for the night. The next morning, Alice notices friends of hers out looking for her. It’s disheartening because (to her) it means they all think she did it. She narrowly escapes some of them, as well as a strange encounter with her mom’s new boyfriend Rick. He seems to want to get Alice, but not call any attention to them. She runs away from him but he gets her backpack. Thankfully the disk was in her pocket. From there she ends up at her dad’s friend’s house, whom she knows is always traveling for work, and leaves a key by his back stoop. She lucks out. Then she finally reads the story on the disk.
It turns out her uncle was murdered by a man named Dick Arren back in the early days of computer networking. Her uncle had been a computer wiz and landed a nice gig at 17, but soon found out his boss was stealing data from other companies and selling it. He told Alice’s father everything, then turned up dead the next day. It was written off as a suicide in spite of suspicious circumstances. But now her dad thinks that he’s found the man who did it, and was getting ready to expose him. Alice fills in the rest; Dick Arren got to her dad first. She drives back to her dad’s place, which is a crime scene and somehow unguarded. This is probably the most unforgivable implausibility of the book. Police incompetence is arguably a subtheme of this, but I don’t know how intentional that was by the author.
She uses her dad’s computer (which absolutely would have been taken from the scene) and accesses his email. She sends the full contents of the disk to one of her dad’s contacts. Then she heads to her mother’s, not knowing where else to go. When mom isn’t home, she goes to mom’s boyfriend’s place. He tells her that mom is at the airport getting her grandparents, but he will take good care of her. That is when she recognizes the van in his garage; the same one that was parked outside of her house when she was hiding under the car. Her mom’s boyfriend Rick was really her dad’s killer, Dick Arren. He’s about to kill Alice when the police arrive. Rick tells them to arrest her, and they do. They move in and take her away. Dick Arren has won again.
As soon as the police confirm that Alice is safe, they promptly arrest Dick/Rick. One of her best friends had been watching her mom’s house and had called them. It turns out no one believed Alice’s confession after examining the evidence. Her friends were out looking because they just wanted to help. The police hadn’t begun to suspect Rick until they drove up on him attempting to assault her. They kept the fact that she was no longer a suspect quiet so they could zero in on the real killer. Alice’s mom arrives soon after and all is forgiven. Her dad is still dead, but his murderer has been arrested and her name is clear. Now she can take a shower and get some sleep. Now, it should have been the police watching those houses and the crime scene, but shoddy police work made significant parts of this book possible. After the rush that made up most of the book, the ending was a bit lackluster.
So was it all kinda silly? Yes. Did I still enjoy the hell out of it? Also yes. I also loved the vintage tech in this. This was cutting edge at the time it was written, using email and data theft as core elements of the plot. Kudos to Conney for getting that part right. There are a lot of hilariously bad examples of writers not understanding technology out there. Cell phones and data tracking would have made for a very sequence of events if Wanted were written for the present day, but the story itself could still work. It’s not the Pulitzer-winning material my childhood self believed it to be, but I still had a ton of fun with it.
For the scoring of each book, I decided to rate them based on five criteria worth 2 points each.
I then split that in two to give it a rating out of 5 stars. Those criteria are:
Concept: the strength of the overall idea
Execution: the mechanics of storytelling
Character: the protagonists, antagonists, and villains
Intent: does it succeed in being the kind of book it wants to be?
Originality: subversion and reliance on genre tropes
Extremely far-fetched but still a ton of fun. Lots of implausibilities that could have been shored up with some slightly different staging of events.
Credit where credit is due; the pacing was breakneck and I was in it the entire time. I didn’t care how realistic or plausible things were because I was enjoying the hell out of the roller coaster. At the same time… the big reveal and the ending were a bit of a letdown after being “at the edge of my seat” for so long.
Alice was a solid enough character and pretty much the only main active character. The rest were all supporting roles at best. I had a clear idea of who she was and why she made the decisions she made.
It was more thrilling than scary, but there were some good chase scenes and close calls.
Not the most original story, but the context of a teen’s perspective felt fresh.
Don’t miss the next post in the Pulp Horror blog series:
Christopher Pike’s Road to Nowhere
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #10: Ski Weekend