Charlie, Presumed Dead is a psychological thriller with a twist that leads to a shocking ending.
Nineteen year old Lena Whitney and seventeen year old Aubrey Burroughs discover each other at the funeral, in Paris, France, of their mutual boyfriend/lover, Charlie Price. Charlie died when the Cessna he was piloting crashed into the North Sea off the coast of Durham. Charlie did not have a license to fly and no one knows why he took the plane out. No body was recovered and only Charlie's bloodstained jacket was found.
With her parents currently in Marseille, Lena has no problem attending Charlie's funeral but for Aubrey who is from the United States, she had to get permission from her parents to fly over for the funeral. Aubrey doesn't know anyone at the funeral and has never met Charlie's parents either. The only person she's met from his life is Adam, his roommate from his senior year in Mumbai. Aubrey's been dating Charlie for a little over a year. In contrast, Lena is the girlfriend Charlie's family knows as they've been dating for three years.
After the service, Lena confronts Aubrey about being the other woman and they go to a cafe to talk about what's just happened in their lives. The two women soon discover that they man they supposedly know is very different. Lena reveals that Charlie told her Aubrey was the "good family friend" while Aubrey did not know about Lena. Lena knows Charlie as a jazz musician while Aubrey found him "hopeless with music". Comparing notes leads Aubrey to wonder if there is more going on than they know. Lena decides to return to London to track down Charlie's past as she believes there's a possibility he faked his death. At first Aubrey declines Lena's invitation to join her but eventually changes her mind. Aubrey wants to recover something of hers that Charlie took, but she doesn't tell Lena.
In London, Lena and Aubrey are taken by Xander, a former friend and "weed hookup" of Charlie's to a club called Fabric where Charlie partied. Aubrey knew Charlie as a gamer who tried weed but hated it, whereas Lena states that he "probably never played a video game in his life". Xander reveals that Charlie lost a brown leather journal he was obsessed about a few months ago in Mumbai. Xander shows the two women a picture of the journal, which Aubrey recognizes as hers. The journal was lost at the Taj Hotel in Colaba, a neighbourhood in South Mumbai. Aubrey tells Lena the journal is hers and she needs to retrieve it even if that means traveling to Bombay. Lena agrees, offering to pay for their trip. At this time it becomes apparent that both girls are keeping secrets from one another. Both girls acknowledge that it now seems odd that Charlie told neither of them that he had returned to Mumbai a few months ago. Lena fills Aubrey in on his backstory, telling her that Charlie spent middle school in Paris, but then was moved to Mumbai for his freshman year of high school. When that did not work out well, he was moved to London for his sophomore and junior year and then returned to Mumbai for his senior year. He traveled to New York for the summer which is when he met Aubrey. That fall Charlie started at Oxford. Both Lena and Aubrey admit they found Charlie beginning to act strange this past year, which they attributed to exam stress.
At the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel the front desk has no journal. While Lena's asleep, Aubrey decides to hook-up with Adam, Charlie's old roommate from Bombay who still works for an NGO. The next day Lena, Aubrey and Adam meet up to discuss Charlie. Adam admits to not knowing Charlie had two girlfriends. He tells them that Charlie had a friend, Anand, in Kerala who owns a tourist boat and who would supply Charlie with weed and booze. From Aubrey and Adam's behaviour, Lena realizes that they are lovers. When confronted later on by Lena, Aubrey tells her that she only cheated on Charlie once and that she told him three months ago when he visited her at her parents home in Illinois on May 19th.
Lena and Aubrey locate Anand and arrange to go out on his boat at night. On the trip Lena divulges that Charlie wrote a suicide note to his mother dated May 20 which she found in his drawer. Anand tells the two women that Charlie owes him money. He also reveals that Charlie has a half brother, Dane. Both Lena and Aubrey grow increasingly suspicious of Anand and it turns out their fears are very real when he drugs them, steals Lena's credit cards and rips their passports. Lena's parents are furious with her and insist she return home to Boston immediately. However, Lena is now determined to travel to Bangkok and she convinces her father's secretary, Cara, to book them a flight. Little do Lena and Aubrey know that this decision has sealed their fate as they have fallen for the trap Charlie has set for them.
Charlie, Presumed Dead is a psychological thriller told by the three main characters; Lena, Aubrey and Charlie. Lena and Aubrey's narratives alternate, while Charlie's occur at specific points in the story.
The premise behind Charlie, Presumed Dead involves two young women who discover they have been dating the same man. Suspecting he may have faked his own death, they set out to learn the truth. Clues lead them from Paris, to London, to Bombay and ultimately to Bangkok. Each woman is hiding a secret motivation behind wanting to find Charlie. However, in a terrible twist, not realizing Charlie's true character, the two women fall into the deadly trap he has set for them. This twist takes the unsuspecting reader completely by surprise, although Heltzel does begin to lay the pieces out for her readers, especially with the second person narratives of Charlie.
The premise would have been more believable as a young adult novel, if the women were older, perhaps in their mid-twenties. Heltzel partly gets around this by having Lena as the rich girl who is able to jet-set to the multiple locations in the story. This allows Aubrey, who is from a middle class, small mid-west town to play her part. Nevertheless, two young girls with an unlimited supply of money, who simply disappear from their families, to follow Charlie's trail through four countries, just doesn't seem plausible.
Despite this, Heltzel does a wonderful job of drawing her readers into the story, dropping hints here and there that suggest hidden motivations for each girl wanting to find Charlie. Initially the reader doesn't really know the full motivations for each girl's desire to track down Charlie. Lena admits "Grief isn't what's driving me to London, though. It's anger. If Charlie's alive, he needs to pay for what he's done to me." Aubrey is more interested in recovering her journal, which we learn later on, Charlie stole from her. In that journal, lies Aubrey's terrible secret which is revealed during a drugged-induced dream in Kerala. It is a secret she begged Charlie to keep.
These narratives reveal Charlie to be a very disturbed man, struggling to juggle his life with two women. As his life begins to unravel, Charlie plots revenge which he doesn't reveal until the later narratives. His sick enjoyment of each step of the revenge which involves the murder of one girl and the false imprisonment of the other are graphically portrayed. "You'll lead them right to it. Lambs to the slaughter; one lamb, anyway...Sometimes you don't care which one suffers, knowing one of them will. You go back and forth about which one it should be and it gives you a thrill...It's not the destruction itself that thrills you the most --though you're looking forward to it -- it's the exhilaration of watching them as they learn that you're alive and in control. It's their inevitable terror. It's perfect." The extent of Charlie's revenge is revealed in one of his last narratives. Charlie is revealed to be completely enraged over Aubrey's betrayal and her subsequent break-up with him. "You've made simple plans for Lena. She was a burden to be discarded. But Aubrey is going to suffer. For Aubrey, you've planned a fate far worse than death."
The novel's open ending leaves readers wondering if there will be a sequel. Is Lena really dead especially given the last narrative? If not, where is she? Will Aubrey be left to rot in the Thai prison? Thai authorities have her passport so they know she's American. Will they inform the US consulate of her imprisonment and the charges against her?
Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015