Published by Disney Hyperion on January 13, 2015
Maddie Fynn is a shy high school junior, cursed with an eerie intuitive ability: she sees a series of unique digits hovering above the foreheads of each person she encounters. Her earliest memories are marked by these numbers, but it takes her father’s premature death for Maddie and her family to realize that these mysterious digits are actually death dates, and just like birthdays, everyone has one.
Forced by her alcoholic mother to use her ability to make extra money, Maddie identifies the quickly approaching death date of one client's young son, but because her ability only allows her to see the when and not the how, she’s unable to offer any more insight. When the boy goes missing on that exact date, law enforcement turns to Maddie.
Soon, Maddie is entangled in a homicide investigation, and more young people disappear and are later found murdered. A suspect for the investigation, a target for the murderer, and attracting the attentions of a mysterious young admirer who may be connected to it all, Maddie's whole existence is about to be turned upside down. Can she right things before it's too late?
Imagine if, in real life, someone had the ability to look at any person (or even a photograph of that person) and instantly know the precise date when that person will die. If that person’s amazing ability was made public, I imagine she would be snatched up by the CIA or NSA and forced to assist in all sorts of covert missions. Now, THAT is a story I’d want to read. Sadly, When was not that story. It was actually a mess, and full of implausibilities, inconsistencies, and inexplicable behavior on the part of nearly every character.
Let’s start with the basics. Maddie is the “death-predictor” in this story. You’d think that she would want to keep her ability a secret in order to protect herself, but you would be wrong. She pretty much hangs a shingle outside her house that reads. “Come in and pay me, and I will tell you when you will die.” She hires out her services in order to help her mother pay the bills, and even when Maddie’s predictions are continually proven right, she somehow never comes to the attention of the media or the authorities. Look at all of the “psychic” scam artists that are famous in the U.S., and imagine if these people were actually genuine. It would be earth-shattering. But Maddie flies under the radar until a distraught mother with a cancer-stricken daughter comes to Maddie to learn when that child will die. Maddie views a photograph of the girl and her siblings, and she informs the mother that the daughter will live a long life. Mom is overjoyed, but wait a minute! Maddie looks at the woman’s other children in the photograph, and she tells the mother that her son will be dead in a few days. Happy mom is suddenly not so happy anymore. In fact, she is furious at Maddie. Sure enough, the son is murdered, and the mother accuses Maddie of killing him. I was lost here. The mother went to Maddie because she knew Maddie had a proven ability. She was ready to believe anything that Maddie told her about her daughter, but for some reason, the same information about her son was not to be trusted.
Two vicious FBI agents immediately descend upon Maddie, calling her a murderer and threatening to lock her up. The fact that they have not a shred of evidence of how this shy, unassuming teenage girl became a cold-blooded murderer is irrelevant. By the way, I continually questioned why FBI agents were involved, rather than the local police who were completely absent from the story. This is never explained, and I can only think that the FBI agents are supposed to be scarier than cops. But these FBI agents weren’t just scary. They were disgusting. They terrorize Maddie for no reason. At one point, Maddie visits her hospitalized mother, and one of the FBI agents prowling around the hospital says to Maddie, “Guess you won’t be using her as a character witness, huh?” Seriously???
It’s not just the FBI agents behaving like ogres. Maddie’s principal, her classmates, and nearly all of her teachers bully and taunt her over the accusations. Keep in mind that the reason for this behavior is that these people believe Maddie brutally murdered a child. Don’t you think they’d be scared of her?
I might have had some sympathy for Maddie, but she does nothing to help her case, especially when additional children are murdered, and the FBI agents believe she killed all of them. The moment that she was accused of the first murder early in the story, I knew there was an easy solution. All she has to do is prove to the FBI agents that she is not a fraud. They believe that she is falsely predicting deaths and then murdering those people in order to make the predictions come true. (Despite the fact that many people in the town could have come forward and told the agents that she had correctly predicted the deaths of their loved ones.) She could have asked the agents to show her obituary photos of people all over the world, and reel off all their death dates. (Did I mention that Maddie can not only predict the deaths of living people, but she can also see the dates of death of people who are already dead?) Halfway through the book, she finally, FINALLY makes that suggestion to her uncle/lawyer, but he shoots the idea down with no explanation. WHY??? The entire basis for the FBI’s case is that Maddie is a fraud. Prove to them that you’re not, and they can turn their attentions elsewhere!
I cannot end here without mentioning a couple of other implausibilities. Maddie’s mother is completely unconcerned when her only child is accused of being a serial killer. Maddie is continually dragged into the FBI offices for interrogation, and her mother is nowhere to be found. Maddie does a bit of her own investigating with her one loyal friend, and it’s laughable how unaware these teenagers are of even the most basic technology. For instance, they want to get in touch with a teenager at a neighboring school, and they are completely befuddled on how to do it. They know the girl’s name, but it never occurs to them to look her up on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or whatever kids use these days.
Will it ever end? Yes, it will. (And so will I, don’t worry.) Of course, the killer is finally revealed, but not before the FBI agents engage in some more unbelievably unprofessional and dangerous behavior. There is a final “twist” that is so bad and so eye-rolling, and it had me laughing for all the wrong reasons. So…I guess this ended on a high note?