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  Kill Me First

Kill Me First Reviews:

Entertainment Weekly
TimeOut NY
Publisher's Weekly
Newsday/ LA Times
The Economist
Interview Magazine
Library Journal


Entertainment Weekly

KILL ME FIRST Kate Morgenroth (HarperCollins, $24) Not since Hannibal Lecter has there been quite so seductively, sanely evil a killer as Merec, the Beelzebub of this debut thriller. In the midst of a killing spree, Merec encounters a woman named Sarah Shepherd who fears neither death nor its messenger. He takes her hostage, tortures her a bit, videotapes the event, abnd airs the tapes for the world, turning her into a media sensation. Thus begins a psychological cat-and-mouse game involving Merec, FBI agent Tresler, and Sarah, as they feint and probe and try to outsmart each other. But who is the cat and who is the mouse? It's never entirely clear; the most accurate answer may be the writer and the reader. What is clear is that despite their quasi-love triangle, these three never let emotions get in the way of their actions, which prove destructive, dangerous, and compulsively readable. A-

Review By Vanessa V. Friedman

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Time Out

When Kate Morgenroth's debut novel, KILL ME FIRST, is snapped up by the film industry, some exec will no doubt pitch it as a Sherlock Holmes tale for the '90's, a story of two fiercely intelligent adversaries, a beguiling female hostage and more homicides than there are pages in the book. The murderer is eloquent in matters of the human psyche, and his use of violence is really an expression of his won value system. The quietly heroic federal agent is always holding a cup of cold coffee and drawing astonishing, accurate conclusions based on infinitesimal clues and no sleep. The local law enforcers have turf spats with the feds, the media is bloodthirsty, and people hop commercial flights as easily as the rest of us do cars. Yet Morgenroth finds new life in these stock thriller elements, creating a novel that is nearly impossible to put down.
Morgenroth pulls no punches, opening with a description of an exercise in which Merec, the international mastermind assassin, instructs recruits to shoot each other at point-blank range. He eventually involves them in a massacre at the Willowridge retirement home in Virginia. Merec, who films his exercises in psychological and physical torture, has a knack for leadership that any CEO would kill for. (The trick is to find loners who trust you, then knock them off before they spread the word that you’re not exactly an equal–opportunity employer.) Tresler, who chose his profession because he "always wanted to be a criminal but didn’t have what it takes," is the endearing FBI agent trying to find Merec and save Sarah Shepherd, a hostage taken at Willowridge.
Morgenroth can unsettle even the most hardened viewers of the evening news. Her formula includes describing unusually cruel murders, like those of wheelchair-bound senior citizens, and ending chapters with understated revelations that deliver terrific shock value every time. She words hard to create a complex, gory story and tie up nearly every detail in deliciously unpredictable ways. Although she keeps her language and metaphors simple so as not to divert attention from the plot, Morgenroth still presents a thoughtful, suspenseful exploration of heroism, psychosis and the power of loneliness.

—Daphne Uviller

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Publisher's Weekly

"Nobody likes... to think of themselves as doing anything to stay alive. They think they'd say, 'Kill me first.' " These words from kidnap victim Patty Hearst set up this debut novel from a former marketing assistant at HarperCollins, but they hardly prepare readers for the intensely absorbing story to come. Sarah Shepherd, 51, has lost her husband in a car accident and despairs of her own life. She gets placed in a nursing home that has been targeted for a terrorist act by Merec, a brilliant sociopath sought by the CIA. This elusive international criminal picks his team by pitting them against one another with loaded weapons: whoever survives makes the first cut. On the Fourth of July, Merec's band gathers the home's residents together and kills most of them. Sarah shows such spunk that Merec keeps her as a hostage. His videotapes of her torture make her a media star, which provides momentum for a plan that will dupe the country and defile one of New York City's most sacred shrines. The videotapes alert Agent Tresler, an FBI man on Merec's trail, to what the killer has in mind, but he can't stop the horrifying act. Nor can he guess the unexpected kink in Merec's plan—for Merec falls for Sarah and offers her the chance to escape. She declines, having decided that she will have a more stimulating life with Merec than on her own. Her decision—while straining credulity—turns the tables as the captor meets his match. This is a clever and unusual thriller, unflinching in its violence, economic in its plotting and unpredictable in its psychological developments. (May)
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A merciless killer meets his match in the hostage he's snatched from a nursing home in Morgenroth's white–hot debut.
The man called Merec has killed, by his own count, 82 people, but he never tires of staging scenes that pose his victims' impossible moral dilemmas. His favorite game is to pair prospective victims off and ask one of each pair which of the two he should kill. One day he and his crew (Tina the inside contact, Jeremy the obliging videotaper, etc.) descend on the Willowridge Rest Home in Virginia. When they pair off the clients and the available staff, every person they ask tells them to kill the other half of the pair—every person but Sarah Shepherd. Sarah, widowed by a car crash four months earlier, has been hopelessly apathetic until Merec comes along, but the defining moment he poses, faithfully captured on video, gives her a new lease on life. Instead of killing her, he takes her hostage and has her beaten and tortured on camera with the idea that sooner or later she'll break down and make a videotaped plea for a $10 million ransom the public, fascinated by her endlessly televised story, will queue up to help pay. But Sarah's made of sterner stuff than Merec thinks. Not only does she refuse to snap; she refuses, when the chance offers, to escape, insisting that she'd rather enjoy whatever employment Merec can offer her than endure her brief talk-show stint as a hero before returning to idle despair. Though Morgenroth tacks on her share of action clichés— the heartlessly jokey chapter titles, the justice agencies hopelessly at odds with each other, the scheming media mogul, the prison–house testimony that labels Merec evil—her unsparing take on fame and morality in contemporary America gives this exhilarating tale an unsettling edge.
The rat–tat–tat–tat delivery recalls Speed laced with moral conundrums. Just don't get too attached to any of the minor characters.
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Newsday/ LA Times

Not Since Hannibal Lecter:

Hannibal Lecter returned Tuesday in "Hannibal," Thomas Harris' long–awaited sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs." Meanwhile, another serial killer, named Merec, has come to diabolical life in KILL ME FIRST, a debut novel by Kate Morgenroth that has generated a buzz of its own and prompted the first critics to praise the compulsive readability of its dark story.
"Not since Hannibal Lecter has there been quite so seductively, sanely evil a killer as Merec," Entertainment Weekly observed in its A–minus review. So evil is this guy that the thriller is set in motion with a mass slaying at a Virginia nursing home. A video of the event is left by Merec and his cohorts for the evening news, and they kidnap a grief– frozen widow for further mayhem.
KILL ME FIRST explores the gray area between good and evil and looks at how the media can indulge the perverse fascination that people often have with the gruesome accident by the side of the road. Where did this story come from?
"It's a fair enough question," said Morgenroth, who studied writing at Princeton with John McPhee and Toni Morrison. "At some point in a person's life, particularly in middle age, it seems that his life is set, or he figures it's impossible to change it. I thought this was an illusion, that there's always a chance that something could come into the picture and whack a person into a different life and take him to an extreme."
Sarah, the middle–aged widow, is jolted out of her sadness and acquires a strange sense of freedom among her captors. The title of the book comes from Patty Hearst, who's quoted before the prologue: "Nobody likes to see weaknesses in themselves, to realize what can happen to persons when they're put under stress. . . . They think they'd say, 'Kill me first.'"
Though Morgenroth, 27, is much younger than Sarah, she was shaken out of her own routine by the response to her manuscript. Initially employed in the marketing department of HarperCollins, she quit her job four years ago and worked for the book publisher as a temp in order to have time to concentrate on her writing. Two literary agents she approached were uncomfortable representing such a shocking tale, but she showed her novel to HarperCollins editorial director Larry Ashmead in hopes of receiving some feedback. Instead, Ashmead offered her a two–book contract.
She said her second novel also will fit in the crime–thriller genre. As she put it, "I like to explore darker themes."
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The Economist

Crime Fiction: Whodunit and Why

IN CRIME books, as in acting, motivation is the essence. We read them (those of us who do) not just to escape the boundaries of our physical space, but also of our moral one; to understand the emotional or psychological Why that explains transgression. If most literature acts as a mirror in which we see ourselves, a way of understanding our choices, crime literature acts as a mirror on to the Other. True crime, fictional crime, pulp crime, crime spoofs— they’re all propelled by the same force: the drive to the Why. At least, if they're any good. The proof (no pun intended) is in a quintet of books released in time to cast quite a decided pall on even the sunniest of days. The work of old hands (James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard and Patricia Cornwell) and new (Kate Morgenroth and Lawrence Schiller), they succeed or fail on their ability to make the darkness visible.
Leading the pack is James Ellroy, who has never been afraid of looking straight into the black corners of the soul. His 14th work, "Crime Wave", a collection of fiction and non–fiction set in the "Secret LA", which is all "sex" and all "crime", is no exception. Stacked like a Russian doll, the pieces are all about motivation within motivation, starting with the author’s: his mother's unsolved murder when he was a child. He has been stuck in the blood groove ever since; as he writes, she "gave [him] a voice."
The voice is one of obsession, and it has a peculiarly compulsive readability, whether it is picking over the death by "blunt-force trauma" of a young mother in El Monte by a "remorseless predator with good predatory years left", or dissecting the O.J. Simpson case, which, in Mr. Ellroy’s view, hinges on the stereotype (white actor, rich wife) each of the players wanted to become. The voice muscles its way into the minds of the fictional Danny Getchall, editor of Hush–Hush magazine (the gossip rag made famous in "LA Confidential"), and the real Dick Contino, a 1950s accordion man, whom Mr. Ellroy transforms into a made–up guy who kills a rogue cop. Drugs, sex, his mom—these are the variables that give Mr. Ellroy his reasons to write, and his characters their reasons to act, and his readers their reasons to read. The result is the prose equivalent of a staccato machine gun with hollow–tipped rounds that gets you—boom—right in the gut.
A lot less stomach–churning, but possessed of an equal forward momentum is "Be Cool", the 36th novel from Mr. Ellroy's colleague in crime and celluloid, Elmore Leonard. This time around Mr. Leonard, like Mr. Ellroy, returns to a former hero, the genial Brooklyn Shylock turned film producer, Chili Palmer of "Get Shorty" (you can practically hear John Travolta's voice on the page), but unlike that book, this book is playing an underworld joke on the music business.
It begins with Chili lunching with an old gangster pal turned record exec who gets killed over his grilled pesto chicken by the Russian mob. Searching for a new script, Chili decides to manage the career of an escort girl/singer, but then finds himself caught between some gangsta rappers and the Ruskies and, sensing a story, happily orchestrates a bang–up bloody ending. The whole thing reads with the speed and pace of a screenplay, and when it makes it to the big screen (as it is bound to), any method actor searching for their "hook" won’t have to look far: the girl wants to be a star, the rappers want their money, the Russians want some respect, and Chili, well, Chili wants to see how things are going to turn out. So does the reader; though while the answer has the anticipatory allure of a good punch-–ine, when it finally comes it’s more of a one–liner.
Still, it is a worthy member of the Leonard canon, unlike "Black Notice", Patricia Cornwell's latest installment in the grisly adventures of Kay Scarpetta, chief medical officer in Richmond, Virginia. Ms Cornwell deserves a lot of credit for inventing the tough–but–tender female forensic detective, a character now widely imitated, but lately she seems to be losing energy and interest in her heroine. In her 14th Scarpetta, she is only going through the motions.
By contrast, Kate Morgenroth’s debut novel, "Kill Me First", is a wholly fresh and absorbing work, and Merec, the mercenary at the heart of it, possibly the most intellectual murderer since Hannibal Lecter. Consumed by how people react to death, while he kills for contract, he also uses each job to conduct what are essentially field studies. During one of these—nominally the killing of an old man—he gathers the residents of a nursing home together, pairs them up, and then asks each to choose whom he should kill, the questionee or their partner. All conform to expectations (kill the other guy!) except one woman named Sarah, who says (natch) "kill me first." Fascinated, Merec kidnaps her instead, and they engage in a series of increasingly complex and co–dependent mind–games, with unpredictable results. Suffice it to say that Sarah takes role–playing to an extreme and avidly absorbing end, creating a sort of clinical case study of a killer.
But what to do if you have no killer? Or at least no killer's name? This is the riddle facing Lawrence Schiller, author of "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town”", the true story of the JonBenét Ramsey killing. A post–O.J. cause célèbre in America, JonBenét was the six–year–old beauty pageant queen discovered dead two–and–a–half years ago the day after Christmas in Boulder, Colorado. Though an exhaustive search (exhaustively chronicled in these pages) was conducted, and suspicion quickly fell on the child’s parents, no one has yet been convicted (Mr. Schiller hints that squabbling between the DA’s office and the police is to blame). In other words, we can never know Why, because we don’t know whodunit.
The problem this creates—there’s no payoff—could have been solved if Mr. Schiller had taken a page from, say, Ms. Morgenroth, and got inside a policeman or district attorney and used them as a prism to examine what keeps a bloodhound on the trail long after it has gone cold, or if he had gone the Ellroy way and made the point personal, discussing why he felt the need to follow and document what is ultimately just another unsolved child murder. Instead, however, Mr. Schiller questions his own "right to offer an explanation", and in a fit of Hamlet–ian waffling offers only his voluminous research. He doesn’t seem to realize what Messrs. Ellroy and Leonard, Ms. Morgenroth and even Ms. Cornwell know without even being asked: that the lounge–chair reader picks up a crime book because, like Ms. Morgenroth’s FBI profile, "I always wanted to be a criminal. But I didn’t have what it takes, so this was the next best thing."
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Interview Magazine:

It's an Out–There World Out There: Four new books hold up a mirror to real life—and boy is it weird A naked man trussed up like a pig. An infant slaughtered in New England. A dozen nursing home residents dispatched in one brutal instant. Why are so many of this spring’s most talked–about writers fascinated with bloodletting? Says Kate Morgenroth, twenty–seven, whose affectingly terse debut novel, Kill Me First centers around a woman spared from the nursing home bloodbath and kidnapped by terrorists: "Part of the reason all this stuff is coming out is young writers are reflecting what they see around them, not just when they turn on the TV news but when they go to the movies or read nonfiction. We have grown up in a time when moral absolutes have been breaking down, and rather than complain about this development writers are saying: 'Maybe this is an interesting thing.' It can certainly creates the kind of moral ambiguity that can make for interesting fiction."

—Brendan Lemon

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Library Journal:

This intelligent thriller details the exploits of a ruthless professional killer named Merec who has a clever initiation test for those who want to join his "company"—he pairs up the candidates, gives them both guns, and sees who will shoot first. The survivors get the jobs. After killing nearly all of the residents of a nursing home in order to disguise his true target, Merec again pairs up the last remaining patients and gives them the opportunity to decide who will be killed first. All try to save themselves—except for Sarah Shepherd, a recent widow who asks to die. Intrigued by her request, Merec decides to take her hostage instead—a decision that changes both Sarah and her captor forever. With plenty of action, a truly hateful villain, and a clever FBI agent in hot pursuit, this will be popular with John Sandford fans. This refreshing first novel is recommended for popular fiction collections

—Rebecca House Stankowski


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