We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker: Hunting for Hope (and Life?) in a Hopeless Place

Am glad to welcome the Book Tour for We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker today—it’s one of those books that I don’t feel quite adequate to talk about, but we’ll give it a shot. Be sure to check out some of these other blogs on the graphic below, as well. There’s some great blogs covering this one.

We Begin at the End

We Begin at the End

by Chris Whitaker

eARC, 464 pg.
Zaffre, 2020

Read: April 4-7, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!


Thirty years after (the then minor) Vincent King was imprisoned for killing a girl, he’s released to a world he can only barely recognize. His childhood best friend, now Chief of Police, picks him up from prison to drive him back to the small coastal town they grew up in. Geographic changes, economic changes, societal drift, and other pressures have radically altered this community.

But some things remain—the high school jock who’s athletic future was derailed by an injury still drives the car his father bought while he was in High School, and works to recapture the physical condition he was in then. Chief Walker—Walk—is still hung up on his high school sweetheart (who moved away not long after King was imprisoned). And Star Radley, Vincent’s then-girlfriend, and sister of his victim, still lives in town, still shaped by the events of thirty years prior.

Star has two children—thirteen-year-old Duchess and her little brother, Robin. Duchess does most of the care-taking of Robin, feeding him, getting him ready for school, making sure he’s sleeping. She’s doing everything she can to raise Robin (and protect him from the world), and to keep her mother healthy for Robin’s sake. On the eve of Vincent’s return, Star tries to overdose on pills—and not for the first time.

Walk’s a constant presence in the lives of Star, Duchess, and Robin—but not a necessarily welcome one. Still, he’s the steadiest and most reliable adult in the children’s lives (and in some way, Duchess does depend on him and look up to him).

That’s the status quo that King’s release upsets. What follows is a chain of heartbreak, calamity, tragedy, violence, vengeance, and depravity. There’s a little glimmer of hope, too—but it’s hard to find, and there’s a lot of suffering surrounding it.

Whitaker delivers this in lean prose, without wasting a word. It’s almost as if he took Leonard’s rule to “leave out the parts that people skip,” and dialed it up to 11. The prose matches the emotions, the characters—beauty, ornament, sentiment have no place in their lives, and it’s largely empty from the novel. There’s not a word out of place, each one carefully placed for maximum impact and effectiveness.

Each character has a depth that you don’t always see. Whitaker doesn’t explore the depth too much, doesn’t explain it—but he shows that it’s there. Duchess, in particular, is a character so well drawn that I can practically see her. I won’t forget her anytime soon.

There are some problems, not many, but they’re there. The text in the ARC (and perhaps this will be addressed in the final text) contains a couple of sloppy Britishisms—terms that would be commonplace in the UK, but have no place in a US character’s mind. Particularly if they’re a poorly educated child. Whitaker’s language is so precise, so clear, that having something like that just takes me out of the text—ruining the spell.

Secondly, Whitaker’s sparse style occasionally works against him. Every now and then the prose works against him, making a scene difficult to parse. Just a few more words (judiciously placed, obviously) to flesh things out could help.

I wish I could say that I enjoyed this book—I really do. But I didn’t. I did fall under its spell, the stark, bleak outlook affected me (I wonder how I’d have reacted to a thing or two if Duchess’s and Walk’s plights weren’t in the back of my mind the last couple of days). This is not your typical Crime Novel. It’s not written in the typical fashion, with typical characters and motivations, with typical ends in mind. The terms “moody” and “atmospheric” seem like understatements. It is powerful, skillfully written—and will stay with you for quite a while.

Do yourself a favor, take the plunge.


4 Stars


My thanks to Tracy Fenton and Compulsive Readers for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including a copy of the novel) provided via NetGalley.


This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

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