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The Passenger


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About The Book

“A dead-serious thriller (with a funny bone)” (The New York Times Book Review), from the author of the New York Times bestselling Spellman Files series, comes the story of a woman who creates and sheds new identities as she crisscrosses the country to escape her past.

Forty-eight hours after leaving her husband’s body at the base of the stairs, Tanya Dubois cashes in her credit cards, dyes her hair brown, demands a new name from a shadowy voice over the phone, and flees town. It’s not the first time.

She meets Blue, a female bartender who recognizes the hunted look in a fugitive’s eyes and offers her a place to stay. With dwindling choices, Tanya-now-Amelia accepts. An uneasy―and dangerous―alliance is born.

It’s almost impossible to live off the grid in the twenty-first century, but Amelia-now-Debra and Blue have the courage, the ingenuity, and the desperation, to try. Hopscotching from city to city, Debra especially is chased by a very dark secret. From heart-stopping escapes and devious deceptions, we are left to wonder…can she possibly outrun her past?

The Passenger’s white-knuckled plot and unforeseeable twists make one thing for certain: the ride will leave you breathless. “When the answers finally come, they are juicy, complex, and unexpected. The satisfying conclusion will leave readers rethinking everything and immediately turning back to the first page to start again. Psychological suspense lovers will tear through this thriller” (Library Journal, starred review).


The Passenger Chapter 1
WHEN I found my husband at the bottom of the stairs, I tried to resuscitate him before I ever considered disposing of the body. I pumped his barrel chest and blew into his purple lips. It was the first time in years that our lips had touched and I didn’t recoil.

I gave up after ten minutes. Frank Dubois was gone. Lying there all peaceful and quiet, he almost looked in slumber, but Frank was noisier asleep than he was awake. Honestly, if I had known what kind of snorer he was going to turn into, I never would have married him. If I could do it all over again, I never would have married him even if he slept like an angel. If I could do it all over again, there are so many things I would do differently. But looking at Frank then, so still and not talking, I didn’t mind him so much. It seemed like a good time to say good-bye. I poured a shot of Frank’s special bourbon, sat down on Frank’s faux-suede La-Z-Boy, and had a drink to honor the dead.

In case you were wondering, I didn’t do it. I didn’t have anything to do with Frank’s death. I don’t have an alibi, so you’ll have to take my word for it. I was taking a shower when Frank died. As far as I could tell, he fell down the staircase all on his own. He had been suffering from vertigo lately. Convenient, I know. And I doubt he mentioned it to anyone. If I had waited for the police and told them the truth, maybe life could have continued as normal. Minus Frank.

I poured another drink and contemplated my options. My first thought was to dispose of the body. Then I’d tell the authorities that Frank left me for another woman. Or was running from a loan shark. It was well-known that he had a love for cards but no talent for it.

I decided to test my strength to see if it was even possible. I tugged on Frank’s bloated and callused feet, feet that I had come to loathe—why do you have to tell a grown man to clip his toenails? I dragged the body about a foot from his landing site before I gave up. Frank had put on weight in the past year, but even if he were svelte I couldn’t see depositing him anyplace where he’d never be found. And now there was a suspicious trail of blood in the shape of a question mark just above his head. I might be able to explain it away if I called the police and stayed put. But then they’d start looking at me real carefully and I didn’t like people looking at me all that much.

I tried to imagine my trial. Me, scrubbed clean, hair pulled back in a schoolmarm bun, wearing an innocent flowered sundress with a Peter Pan collar, trying to look not guilty, with my hard-edged poker face dry as the desert. I couldn’t imagine how I’d summon tears or sell that shattered look of loss. I can’t show much emotion anymore. That was something Frank always liked about me. There was a time I used to cry, but that was another lifetime ago. My heart was broken just once. But completely.

As I sat in Frank’s chair, nursing my drink, I pretended to be weighing my options. But there was only one.

Frank kept his gambling stash in his toolbox. A little over twelve hundred dollars. I packed for a short trip and loaded the suitcase into the back of Frank’s Chevy pickup.

I was only leaving two people behind, if you don’t count Frank: Carol from the bar and Dr. Mike.

Dr. Mike was the top chiropractor in Waterloo, Wisconsin. There were only two, so it wasn’t much of a competition. He’d taken over the practice three years ago, when Dr. Bill retired. Ever since the accident, my back hasn’t been right. Dr. Bill used to fix me up once or twice a month. I saw Dr. Mike more frequently. The first time he put his hands on me, I felt an electric jolt, like I had woken up for the first time in years. I came back the next week and it was the exact same thing. I came back the week after that. I missed a week and Dr. Mike dropped by the bar to see how I was doing. Frank was on a fishing trip and Dr. Mike offered to give me an adjustment in the back office. It didn’t go as planned.

I couldn’t trouble Carol at this hour. I’d wake her kids. Maybe I’d send her a postcard from the road.

My chiropractor worked out of an office on the first floor of his three-story Queen Anne–style house in the nice part of town. The smart thing to do was to get out now, run during those precious hours when the world thought Frank was still in it. But I had few real connections to this world, and Dr. Mike was one of them.

I drove Frank’s Chevy truck to Dr. Mike’s house and took the key from under the rock. I unlocked the door and entered his bedroom. Dr. Mike made a purring sound when he was in a deep sleep, just like a Siamese cat I had as a child. He kind of moved like one, too. He always stretched his lanky limbs upon waking, alternating between slow and deliberate, and fast and sharp. I took off my clothes and climbed into bed next to him.

Dr. Mike woke up, wrapping his arms around me.

“Do you need an adjustment?” he said.


That was our little joke. He kissed my neck and then my lips and he turned onto his back, waiting for me to start. That was his thing; we never did it unless it was my decision. I had started it, I’d continue it, and today I was ending it.

Dr. Mike and I were never a great love story. He was the place I went to when I wanted to forget. When I was with Dr. Mike I forgot about Frank, I forgot about running from the law, I forgot about who I used to be.

When we were done, Mike was massaging the kinks out of my back and trying to straighten out my spine.

“You’re completely out of alignment. Did something happen? Did you do something you shouldn’t have?”

“Probably,” I said.

Dr. Mike turned me over on my back and said, “Something has changed.”

“It’s about time, isn’t it?”

I’d felt like a speck of dust frozen in an ice cube for far too long. I should have done something about this life I had long before Dead Frank made me do something.

I looked at the clock; it was just past midnight. Time to leave. I got dressed quickly.

Dr. Mike studied me with a professional regard. “This is the end, isn’t it?”

I don’t know how he knew, but he did. There was no point in answering the question.

“In the next few days, you might hear some things about me. I just want you to know that they’re not true. Later, it’s possible you’ll hear more things about me. Most of them won’t be true either,” I said.

I kissed him good-bye for the last time.

I DROVE thirty miles before I gassed up the truck. I had one ATM card and one credit card and withdrew the $200 maximum for each. I drove another twenty miles to the next fuel stop, got a strong cup of coffee, and withdrew another two hundred on each card. Frank had always been stingy with our money. I had one credit card and a small bank account and neither provided sufficient funds to set you up, if you decided to take an extended vacation. I made one more stop at a Quick Mart, got another four hundred dollars, and dropped the cards in the Dumpster out back. I had $2,400 and a Chevy truck that I’d have to lose before long. I should have been tucking money away from the moment I got the key to the cash register. I should have known this day would come.

The truck smelled like my husband—my ex-husband? Or was I a widow? I’d have to decide. I guess I could have never married. Either way, I drove with the windows open, trying to lose the scent of Frank.

I merged onto I-39 South, leaving Wisconsin behind. I drove through Illinois for some time until I saw a sign for I-80, which I knew would take me somewhere. I had no destination in mind, so I headed west, mostly because I didn’t feel like squinting against the morning light. And I planned on driving through dawn.

I hadn’t brought music for the drive, so I was stuck with local radio and preachers all night long. I hooked onto a station while speeding along the rolling hills of Iowa. It was too dark to see the denuded trees and murky snow marring the barren February landscape.

The Iowa preacher who kept me company for the first half of my journey was listing the seven signs of the Antichrist. One was that he’d appear Christlike. I listened through the static of the fading station and noted a few more clues. He’d be handsome and charming. He was sounding like a catch. But then I lost reception. So it’s quite possible I’ll run into the Antichrist and never know it.

I toggled through the stations to another minister preaching about forgiveness. It’s a subject that doesn’t interest me. I switched off the radio and drove to the sound of wind swishing by and wheels on asphalt while headlights of people on a different path blinked and vanished in my peripheral vision.

I remembered the day I met Frank. I had only been in town a few weeks, hoping to land work somewhere. I was drinking at his bar, which was named after him. Dubois’. Sometimes I think I married Frank for his name. I never liked Tanya Pitts. Didn’t like the first name, didn’t like the last name. No doubt, Tanya Dubois was a promotion.

Back then, Frank had some life in him and I had none, so it worked out just fine. He gave me my first real job. I learned how to pull pints and mix drinks, although we didn’t get too many requests for cocktails in our humble establishment. There wasn’t much more to my life with Frank. We didn’t have any children. I made sure of that.

After driving all night, I found myself just outside Lincoln, Nebraska. It was time to take a break and lose the truck. I found a used car dealership and traded in Frank’s two-year-old Chevy Silverado for a seven-year-old Buick Regal and seventeen hundred in cash. I knew I was being fleeced, but it was better not to draw attention to myself. I wouldn’t be keeping the Buick for long, anyway. I drove another ten miles to a small town called Milford and found a motel called Motel that looked like the kind of establishment that wouldn’t mind an all-cash transaction. When they asked for ID, I said I’d lost mine. I paid a surcharge and signed the register as Jane Green.

I slept for eight solid hours. If I were guilty, could I have done that? I woke with a hunger so fierce it had turned to nausea. I opened the door of room 14, on the second story of the stucco building, and leaned over the balcony to catch a glimpse of the town where I’d landed. I don’t think that balcony was up to code. I took a step back, spotted an unlit red neon sign for DINER.

I returned to my room, washed up, and headed out, giving myself a quick reminder: You are Jane Green for now. Forget who you used to be.

It was eight in the evening, well past the dinner crowd, so I took a seat in a booth, figuring the counter is where everyone talks. I probably wouldn’t be very good at that, since I had no identity. That would come later.

A waitress named Carla dropped a menu in front of me.

“Can I start you off with anything?” she asked.

“Coffee,” I said. “Black.”

“Try it first; then decide.” She poured the coffee. “I’ll give you a minute to look over the menu.”

She was right. It wasn’t the kind of coffee you drank straight. I drowned it in cream and sugar. Even then it was hard to keep down. I perused the menu, trying to decide what I was in the mood for. It occurred to me that Jane Green might be in the mood for something different than Tanya Dubois. But since I hadn’t yet changed my clothes or my hair, I could probably last another day eating the food that Tanya liked. Jane Green was just a shell I embodied before I could be reborn.

“Have you decided, sweetheart?” Carla asked.

“Apple pie and French fries,” I said.

“A girl after my own heart,” Carla said, swiftly walking away on her practical white nurse’s shoes.

I watched Carla chat with a trucker who was hunched over a plate of meatloaf at the end of the counter. He grumbled something I couldn’t understand.

Carla squinted with a determined earnestness and said, “Sunshine, I think you need to go on antidepressants. Yes indeed, you need a happy pill. The next time you walk into my house I want to see a smile on that handsome face of yours. Do you hear me? See that sign there? We have the right to refuse service.”

“Carla, leave the poor man alone,” some guy in the kitchen yelled.

“Mind your own business, Duke,” Carla said. Then she filled more cups of coffee, called customers honey and sweetheart, and belly-laughed at a joke that wasn’t funny at all. I thought it would be nice to be Carla, maybe just for a little while. Try her on and see if she fit.

I devoured my pie and French fries so quickly even Carla was impressed.

“I haven’t seen three-hundred-pound truckers put food away that fast. You must have been famished.”

“Yes,” I said. Short answers. Always.

I paid the check and left, walking down the dull drag of the small town, which hardly deserved a name. I walked into a drugstore and purchased shampoo, a toothbrush, toothpaste, hair dye in auburn and dark brown, and a disposable cell phone from behind the counter.

The clerk, a middle-aged man with the name Gordon on his name tag, rang up my order and said, “That’ll be fifty-eight dollars and thirty-four cents.”

I paid in cash. As I was leaving, the following words escaped my mouth: “Thanks, sweetheart. Have a nice day.”

It felt so wrong, I almost shivered in embarrassment.

I FOUND a liquor store on the way home and purchased a bottle of Frank’s favorite bourbon. I figured I could drink away all my memories. I paid in cash and said a mere “thanks” to the clerk.

Back in the hotel room, with the heating unit rattling out of time, I spread my bounty on the bed and tried to decide my next move. I’d known it all along, but I didn’t yet have the courage. I took a shot of bourbon and plucked my phone book from my purse. I inhaled and practiced saying hello a few times. Then I dialed.

“Oliver and Mead Construction,” the receptionist said.

“I’d like to speak to Mr. Roland Oliver.”

“May I ask who is calling?”

“No. But I’m sure he’ll want to talk to me.”

“Please hold.”

A click, and then Beethoven blasted over the line. Two full minutes passed and the receptionist returned.

“I’m afraid Mr. Oliver is very busy right now. Can I take a number, and he’ll call you back?”

I didn’t want to say the name, but I didn’t see any other way of reaching him.

“Tell Mr. Oliver that his old friend Tanya is calling.”

This time I got only a few bars of Beethoven before Mr. Oliver’s deep sandpaper voice came on the line.

“Who is this?” he said.

“Tanya Pitts,” I whispered.

He said nothing. I could hear his labored breath.

“I need your help,” I said.

“You shouldn’t have called me here,” he said.

“Would it have been better if I left a message with your wife?”

“What do you want?” he said.

“A favor.”

“What kind of favor?”

“I need a new name.”

“What’s wrong with the one you’ve got?”

“It’s not working for me anymore. I think you know someone who can take care of these things.”

“I might.”

“I want a clean identity, a name that’s prettier than my old one, and if possible, I wouldn’t mind being a few years younger.” Tanya Dubois was about to have her thirtieth birthday. But I didn’t want to turn thirty before my time.

“You can’t get identities served to order,” Mr. Oliver said.

“Do your best.”

“How can I reach you?”

“I’ll reach you. Oh, and if you wouldn’t mind, I’m going to need some cash too. A couple grand should do it.”

“You’re not going to become a problem now, are you, Ms. Pitts?”

He used my name like a weapon, knowing it would feel like a stab in the gut.

“Make it five grand,” I said.

I knew I could get more, but I had gone years without asking Mr. Oliver for a dime, and I found a point of pride in that.

“Where are you?” he said.

“I’ll be in touch.”

“Wait,” he said. “How have you been?”

I could have sworn the question was sincere, like it mattered to him. But I knew otherwise.

“Good-bye, Mr. Oliver.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Passenger includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q & A with author Lisa Lutz. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


After discovering her husband, Frank, dead at the base of the stairs, Tanya DuBois abruptly flees the town she’s lived in for the past eight years. Worried that the police will catch up with her and discover the dark secrets of her past, Tanya travels from Waterloo, Wisconsin, to Austin, Texas, where she takes on the name Amelia Keen and befriends a barkeep with secrets of her own named Blue. But after a violent brush with death, Amelia realizes that her new name and new city aren’t safe for her either, and Blue helps her assume yet another identity. But as Amelia—now Debra Maze—heads west and embarks upon a new life in Wyoming, she realizes that this adopted persona comes with more baggage than any name she’s taken on up to this point. With one eye looking behind her, Debra settles into life as a small town schoolteacher, but the shadowy events of her past are drawing her home, and she discovers that there’s more than one person out there who knows her secrets and will stop at nothing to uncover the truth.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Did you initially believe Tanya when she states that she had nothing to do with Frank’s death, and that he died simply after a fall down the stairs? How does your perception of Tanya’s innocence or guilt change throughout the course of the novel?

2. Did you find Tanya to be a reliable narrator? At which points in the novel did you trust her account of events, and at which points did you feel she was hiding all or some of the truth?

3. What techniques does the author use to ratchet up the tension and suspense throughout the novel? Discuss specific moments that were unnerving for you as a reader, and how the author kept you on edge. How did the author use humor to lighten the mood periodically?

4. Why does Amelia decide to trust Blue? Do you think that Blue ever trusts Amelia? Would you have trusted Blue if you were in the same position?

5. How much of Blue giving Debra Maze’s identity to Amelia is altruistic, and how much is malicious? Do you believe that Blue’s gift is intended to be a way out or a trap?

6. How do the emails between Ryan and Jo inserted throughout the novel help you to understand their relationship and what happened ten years ago? Why does Jo continue to communicate with Ryan, and why does she seem to trust him?

7. What does each new identity or potential identity represent to Tanya? What does Tanya’s ability to shift identities so easily say about her personality and her motivations, and in what ways does taking on a new identity change her? Discuss in particular the changes Tanya makes to her hair and makeup to make herself alternately more attractive or less attractive, and how these changes make her feel.

8. In Recluse, Wyoming, Debra comes close to making a life for herself as a small-town schoolteacher. What do you think would have happened if Jack Reed hadn’t appeared on her doorstep? Could Debra have ever lived a relatively normal life in Recluse? How do her actions there alter the course of her journey and her self-perception?

9. Violence toward women is a major theme of the novel. What sort of statement is the author making by presenting so many relationships where women have been abused or wronged, and what does it mean for these women to get revenge?

10. Discuss Tanya’s relationships with the men in her life: Frank, Domenic, and Ryan. Is she truly in love with any of them? Who does she reveal herself to, and why? How does Tanya use men and her sexuality to get what she wants?

11. Why does Tanya decide it’s so crucial for her to tell the police about Reginald Lee? Does her attempt to stop Reggie from committing a crime absolve her of any of her own transgressions?

12. Did you feel empathy for Tanya or any of her many alter egos? How did your feelings toward her fluctuate over the course of the novel? Did you ever feel that she went past redemption in your eyes, or did you root for her to succeed?

13. Why does Nora ultimately decide to go home? Were you surprised by what happens when she gets there?

14. What do you think happens to the characters after the novel is over? Do you think Nora will finally find peace?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. If you could change your identity (without any criminal implications!), who would you be, and why? What would your name be, and how would you disguise yourself? What would your drink order be?

2. Read The Passenger alongside another novel with an unreliable narrator—Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll, or The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Compare and contrast the protagonists in those novels with Tanya and share your thoughts on the unreliable narrator as a literary technique.

A Conversation with Lisa Lutz

You are famous for the Spellman Files novels, your Edgar Award–nominated series of comedic mysteries featuring a family of sleuths. Why did you want to write such a different book at this point in your career? Are the characters in The Passenger ones that you’ve wanted to write about for a long time?

I loved writing the Spellman novels, but I never had any plan to only write in one genre. People read based on their current moods, whims, obsessions. There’s no reason why a writer shouldn’t explore and use different genres. The basic idea of The Passenger had been on the back burner for probably twenty years. So, yes, definitely a long time. But maybe it needed to simmer that long.

What was your writing process like for The Passenger? Did you have the entire book plotted from the start or did it change and take shape as you went along? Was your process any different for this book than it would be for one of your Spellman Files novels?

I tend to start books with a very broad outline, but I always leave room for happy accidents. With The Passenger there were perhaps too many of those. There were several plot twists that came to me late in the game that required serious revision. But those are the moments when I find writing the most satisfying—those ideas that arise suddenly but seem to fit so perfectly.

Did you base Tanya’s story on any real-life accounts of women on the run from the law?

I didn’t. To a certain extent I let “Tanya” have my own limitations—in terms of not knowing where to get new identification and not being particularly savvy or heroic. She’s a smart woman, with relatively ordinary skills, figuring things out on the fly. She does what I think I might have done in a similar situation. However, if I had to run now, I’d have to do things very differently since there’s a whole book out there giving away my survival blueprint.

What research did need to you do about fugitives and people trying to disappear while you were working on the novel?

I did a fair amount of research on the subject. The main thing I learned is how hard it is to legitimately change your name and live out in the open as another person. I didn’t want my character to be well-connected to the kind of underground resources that could enable someone do that, so she had to go off the grid, which is mostly about paying cash and staying inconspicuous.

Was The Passenger influenced by any books or films?

I was very conscious of the excellent Thomas Perry series featuring Jane Alexander, who guides people who need a new identity. I suppose my book is kind of the flip side of that. But I don’t know that influence is the right word. I don’t feel like I’m a writer who works under any influence. At least not that kind.

Which character in the novel are you most empathetic with, and why?

The main character, of course. The woman with many names or no names, depending on how you look at it. I spent the most time thinking about her and her motivations. I suppose I’m always partial to the main character, no matter what I write.

Despite their flaws, lies, and crimes, Tanya and Blue’s relationship and ultimate loyalty to each other was one of my favorite parts of the novel. Where did you come up with the idea for their fascinating friendship? Do you have a friend who would commit a crime for you and help clear your name?

Thank you. I don’t know exactly where Blue came from. I remember hearing her voice in my head and constructing the character around that. Recently a friend suggested that Blue was like Tyler Durden from Fight Club, only real. I thought that was an interesting comparison.

As for the second question: Hmm . . . I don’t know if I have friends who would commit a crime for me (although I’d like to think a few would at least jaywalk). But I’m fairly certain I have a number of friends who might help cover up one of my crimes.

If you had the opportunity to become someone else, who would you become, and why? Where would you go and what type of story would you imagine for yourself?

Do you really expect me to answer that question? I have to leave something in the tank, just in case.

Throughout the novel, there is a strong theme of violence against women, and women avenging the men who have wronged them. Did you initially intend to write a book with such powerful and violent female characters, or is that something that emerged in the writing process?

I would agree that Blue is perhaps unnecessarily violent, although I could also argue that her behavior is justified. I do believe my main character behaves in a manner that is fair under the circumstances. I don’t think I could ever create a primary character without a strong moral center. The worst thing she does is motivated by good intentions.

What are you working on next? Do you have plans to write any more standalone novels of psychological suspense?

I actually think I’ll be sticking to standalones for a while. The novel I’m currently working on, Last Moon, is about two close friends, a man and a woman. It follows them through their college years and then later. There’s a suspicious death in their past and a murder in their present. It’s about loyalty and the limits of trust.

About The Author

Morgan Dox

Lisa Lutz is the New York Times bestselling, Alex Award–winning author of the Spellman Files series, as well as the novels The Accomplice, Heads You Lose (with David Hayward), How to Start a Fire, The Passenger, and The Swallows. She has also written for film and TV, including HBO’s The Deuce. She lives in upstate New York.

Product Details

  • Publisher: S&S/Marysue Rucci Books (November 29, 2016)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451686647

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