Up Close: Sandra Block
A Twist on Revenge
By Wendy Tyson
They say revenge is a dish best served cold, and with Sandra Block’s latest novel, WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT, that’s indeed the case. Block’s debut thriller, Little Black Lies, the first in her Zoe Goldman series, was a 2016 Thriller Award finalist that earned Block critical praise. Now Block is back with WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT, a morally complex, fast-paced standalone thriller that takes a hard look at what it means when the pursuit of justice becomes personal.
When Dahlia is brutally attacked while at a party at Harvard, her world falls apart. She can’t remember the details, but the physical evidence of rape is undeniable. The police dismiss her, family members seem to blame her, and ghostly, half-formed images of what she endured haunt her. Eventually depression and hopelessness push her to attempt the unthinkable. Five years later, Dahlia has some semblance of her life back. Working a job that’s not challenging, and suffering from PTSD, Dahlia is still plagued by the crimes committed against her—until a video of the attack surfaces on the internet. Although it’s painful to watch, the video fills in many of the gaps in Dahlia’s memory. Armed with new knowledge and five years’ worth of rage, Dahlia uses her wits and inner strength to identify her attackers and go after them in ways they could never anticipate.
Booklist called WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT “An emotional thriller…An apt read in the #MeToo era….” Block acknowledges that real life events inspired the storyline. “Back in college, I was in a peer counseling group that dealt with sexual abuse. So I’ve been a card-carrying feminist, fighting against sexual violence for some time. But I would say the Brock Turner case propelled my latent anger into a book. I wanted the victim—finally—to win.”
In WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT, winning doesn’t necessarily mean physical retribution. Block says, “I envisioned a different type of revenge story, not manufactured by men or for men (i.e., Kill Bill or Death Wish), but from a female perspective. Dahlia has to go outside of the justice system to find justice, but ultimately, she’s able to give survivors the (sort of) happy ending that they deserve.”
The ending is satisfying, in part because it defies expectations. In WHAT HAPPENED LAST NIGHT, Dahlia doesn’t pursue vengeance with a single-minded ferocity common in revenge thrillers, and Block handles the revenge theme—and the topic of rape—with sensitivity. “First off,” Block says, “Dahlia is not some kind of cold-blooded warrior. She struggles with what she is doing while still feeling the need to do it.” Block also took pains to portray the consequences of rape in a credible manner. “I wanted to provide a realistic view of a rape survivor without being didactic or prurient. I did my best not to sensationalize or sexualize her experience. The reader never actually sees the rape. However, the matter-of-fact recounting of elements on videotape is somehow more disturbing than any sensory details I could have provided.”
The glimpses we get of the attack are horrifying, perhaps made even more so because they are relayed by Dahlia without self-pity—and because the perpetrators are everyday people. “As Dahlia points out,” Block says, “these men are not monsters. They were all in the upper echelon of schooling and now society. The idea that all rapists are sociopaths is not only inaccurate, it’s not helpful in solving the issue of sexual violence. This is a societal problem and it’s not always black-and-white. People we love can do awful things. That’s part of the reason for the final twist at the end, to drive that point home. Heroes can be villains too.”
It’s Block’s handling of the moral and ethical quandaries, combined with the page-turning suspense she creates by alternating points of view, that make the novel immensely enjoyable. WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT isn’t all about revenge. It’s also about forgiveness. And the resiliency of the human spirit. And the healing power of love. “The revenge narrative is just one layer of the novel,” Block says. “Just as important is the budding relationship between Dahlia and James. Though Dahlia tells most of the tale, we also hear from James, her co-worker and partner-in-crime.” Dahlia and James’s love story is told with compassion. Both wounded, both seeking justice, their growing passion fuels the narrative. “James has his own struggles, both with Aspergers as well as family secrets” Block explains. “Together, they heal each other. Their love story is really the heart of the novel.”
Block is humble when asked about success as a novelist and the words of New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, who said, “I will read anything Block writes. You should too.” Block says, “First of all, let me thank Lisa Scottoline! We met at a library panel in Florida for ITW debut authors. She was so kind and generous to 1: even be there and 2: agree to read my book [Little Black Lies] and blurb it.” How about Block’s advice for aspiring authors? “Just keep writing. This is a business of highs and lows. Appreciate the highs, ride through the lows, and just keep writing.”
Block has continued writing while managing a successful career as a neurologist. When explaining how she went from neurology to crime fiction, Block says it was the other way around. “Crime fiction brought me to neurology. I always wanted to be a writer, but ended up going the safer route of medicine. And if you’re into mysteries, neurology is the perfect field. It’s all about solving puzzles, identifying the lesion by tracing symptoms through an elaborate, criss-crossing maze otherwise known as the central nervous system.”
So will there be more mysteries in Block’s future? “I have one title in for submission, a domestic suspense called The Pretty Sister about a woman investigating her sister’s death. I’m currently writing another with a working title of The Missing Girl about a woman finally facing the truth about her best friend’s disappearance in high school. And after that…we shall see!”
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