Review: The Speed Queen

Stewart O’Nan (1997)

Author Stewart O’Nan takes a very interesting premise in the intense and disturbing book The Speed Queen. Narrated in first person by a woman on death row who’s counting down the hours to her execution, this compact page-turner tells the story of the notorious Sonic Killers. Marjorie isn’t just reliving the events that led to her date with the electric chair—she’s telling her side of the story to none-other-than Stephen King. Well, actually his tape recorder. Before midnight, she’ll run through her life, from childhood to the day she met Lamont, the drug dealing, hot-rod-driving, love of her life (and father of her son), to a stretch in jail where she meets Natalie (the last ingredient in the lethal love-triangle), culminating with the botched robbery of a fast food drive-in that ends in murder.

As the story unfolds, details drop into place and events are foreshadowed by random comments made by Marjorie. Told almost completely in first-person, yet flowing in and out of flashbacks that bring the other characters to life, Marjorie works to set the record straight and earn her kid some money. She often makes comparisons to elements from King’s own stories and suggests ways that he might punch up her story to give it flair and color. I thought this trick, having the subject of the story not only tell her own story, but comment on the “creation” of it with the supposed author (Stephen King/Stewart O’Nan) was an interesting self-reflexive twist.

But I understand all your readers will want the nasty details.  That’s what makes it fun for them…You get to go way overboard with those little gross-out details. I figure that’s what you’ll want to do here.  I’m not sure how you’ll do that with real people because it would be hard on their families, but if it’s fiction I guess it doesn’t matter.  You just change their names.  Nobody believes the people in your books are real anyway. That’s what makes it fun.

Exactly what happened to land Marjorie in jail, a robbery/murder very similar to the Brown’s Chicken murder back in 1993, isn’t detailed until the end of the book. Everything leads up to the inevitable and horrible ending which draws closer with each turn of the page.

It’s hard to say you enjoy a book like this, but I would definitely recommend it to fans of O’Nan’s unique voice.  While A Prayer for the Dying is still my favorite—yet another dark, disturbing and utterly riveting tale—I’d say that if you’re comfortable with the subject matter, The Speed Queen is a worthwhile read.

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