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Before You Knew My Name

A Novel



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About The Book

Winner of Crime Debut and Readers’ Choice Awards—Sisters in Crime
Editors’ Choice/Staff Pick by The New York Times Book Review

“A brave and timely novel.” —Clare Mackintosh, internationally bestselling author of Hostage

This is not just another novel about a dead girl. Two women—one alive, one dead—are brought together in the dark underbelly of New York City to solve a tragic murder.

When she arrived in New York on her eighteenth birthday carrying nothing but $600 cash and a stolen camera, Alice Lee was looking for a fresh start. Now, just one month later, she is the city’s latest Jane Doe. She may be dead but that doesn’t mean her story is over.

Meanwhile, Ruby Jones is also trying to reinvent herself. After travelling halfway around the world, she’s lonelier than ever in the Big Apple. Until she stumbles upon a woman’s body by the Hudson River, and suddenly finds herself unbreakably tied to the unknown dead woman.

Alice is sure Ruby is the key to solving the mystery of her short life and tragic death. Ruby just wants to forget what she saw…but she can’t seem to stop thinking about the young woman she found. If she keeps looking, can she give this unidentified Jane Doe the ending and closure she deserves?

A “heartbreaking, beautiful, and hugely important novel” (Rosie Walsh, New York Times bestselling author), Before You Knew My Name doesn’t just wonder whodunnit—it also asks who was she? And what did she leave behind?


Chapter One ONE
The first thing I understand about the city I will die in: it beats like a heart. My feet have barely hit the pavement, the bus that delivered me here has only just hissed away from the curb, when I feel the pulse of New York, the hammering. There are people everywhere, rushing to its rhythm, and I stand open-mouthed in the middle of the widest street I’ve ever seen, smelling, tasting the real world for the very first time. Though I am named for a girl who fell down a rabbit hole, I feel in this moment as if I have climbed up out of the darkness and left the distortion of my old life behind me. If you were to look back, you’d see all the four-way stop signs and the star-spangled flags of small-town America waving us goodbye. You’d catch a glimpse of untended roads littered with potholes, and windowless convenience stores set down on otherwise empty lots. You’d see rusted ice freezers next to sliding-glass doors, and nine-dollar bottles of liquor on dusty shelves. If you looked hard enough, you might even find my name traced in that filmy coating, there between the expired packets of potato chips and the fading jars of salsa.

Alice Lee.

I am here. She was there. And then she ran away to New York City, leaving all that dust behind her.

The second thing I understand: I cannot fall back down that rabbit hole. Not even if Mr. Jackson shows up at the bottom, his delicate fingers beckoning. I need to prove I can make it on my own, that I can survive just fine without him. I will not be like my mother, who forgave any man who said sorry. I have learned her own failed lesson, see. That when a man discovers where to hurt you, the way he touches you changes. He won’t be able to stop himself from pressing hard against that spot, no matter how many times it makes you cry.

I will never let a man make me cry. Not ever again.

Unzipping my duffel bag, I swing it to the front of my hip bone. Reaching inside, I run my fingers over the black vulcanite of the old Leica buried at the bottom of the canvas, feel for the grooves of the detachable lens as I walk. I don’t know why I need this proof, when I have been feeling the weight of the camera, the bump and knock against my thigh, the whole journey here. It is not as if it could have suddenly disappeared from deep inside my bag, cocooned by my sweaters and socks and underwear. But I need to reassure myself the Leica is safe and intact, all the same. Because this is what I have left. This is what I brought with me, and it is a small triumph to know that Mr. Jackson will soon realize what I have taken from him. If he does not miss me, he will at least miss how he used to look at me through that lens.

Everyone’s lost something, Alice.

Isn’t that what he told me, just the other day?

For three glorious weeks in the late summer of 1995, my mother appeared on a billboard in Times Square. In the months before I was born, if you were to stand out front of the old Roy Rogers restaurant, you could look across the street and see her beautiful face decorating the side of a tall, wide building, right there between ads for the Donahue talk show and a movie called Showgirls, coming soon. I know these details from my mother’s stories of that summer. How she ran away to New York after one too many beatings from her father, as if there was a magical number for the endurance of such things, and he finally exceeded it in her eighteenth year. And how, her lip still bleeding, she stole money from my grandfather’s wallet to buy a bus ticket from Bayfield County, Wisconsin, to New York City, the most faraway place she could think of. Her first night in the city, trying not to fall asleep in a back booth of some dingy Eighth Avenue diner, she met a semi-famous photographer. Before the night was over, he had shifted her into his apartment, cleaned her up, and when she looked nice and pretty, said he was in love with her. He wasn’t, of course, or he was for a time, but he loved his rich wife in the Hamptons more than he loved my mother, so he eventually left her. She was already pregnant when he snapped the picture of her smiling face that would end up reigning over Times Square those three sultry weeks.

“You were there with me, Alice Lee,” she would remind me. “Everyone looking up at us, as if we belonged there.”

I never knew if my mother told my father what he was really seeing when he took that picture. If he ever knew his unborn child was also there in the frame. The finer details of how I came to be were smudged, blurred out, by the time the story made its way to me.

These are the things I think of. The two of us on a billboard, high above Times Square. My presence unnoticed back then, just as it is tonight, as I wander past streets lined with busy restaurants and glittering signs, a crossword puzzle of names running down the sides of the fanciest buildings I’ve ever seen. Who do you have to be, what do you have to do, to get your name up there?

Just a few weeks from now, when people can’t stop talking about me, this city will give me a whole new name. My real name will be a question no one can answer, so they will call me Jane Doe. A dead girl who—

But we are only at the beginning of things tonight. My name is Alice Lee, and I have just stepped off an overheated cross-country bus, only just started to make my way up an avenue called Seventh in the city of New York. I am alert, alive, present, as I breathe in the peculiar smell of cardboard and piss and metal that is my first hour in this city. There is an order to how things happen, a trail of breadcrumbs I need you to follow. Right now, I want you to get lost with me, as I turn the map on my secondhand phone this way and that, following the blue dot that is me, right here, pulsing. In this moment, the lines and circles make no sense to me at all.

Here we are, on an island. Surrounded by water, and somehow this makes it easier to breathe. Delivered to a busy bus terminal with two bags and six hundred dollars in cash, and an unfamiliar address stored in my phone. I am eighteen, just turned, and there are a million things I cannot do, but I can do this. You can’t exactly call it running away. Though to be sure, like my mother, I waited to collect that extra year. Years are funny like that. The way a certain accumulation gives you permission for all kinds of things. Eighteen years old, and you are suddenly able to consent. Does that happen at midnight, or one minute past the hour, or is there some other calculation that makes you ready? Able to consent. Does that mean I did not consent before? It certainly seems that way to Mr. Jackson.

Fingers traveling all over metal and lens. I cannot think of him without touching what used to belong to him.

I used to belong to him.

Now I belong only to myself. I am no longer a minor, a ward of the state. With the addition of just one day, there is no more threat over my head, no more list of strangers with the power to control my life. I’m eighteen years old and suddenly nobody can touch me. I’m so light with this realization that, were it not for the weight of my bags, I might actually skip. Manhattan’s wide, heaving streets seem made for skipping this first, beautiful night, as horns honk and engines hiss, and passersby talk too loud on their cell phones.

I shimmy around these noises, careful to avoid all the concrete cracks, and the large, metal-framed holes that seem to puncture the sidewalk at increasing intervals. Cellar doors, I realize, but only after I see some of those rusty traps open up, men in aprons climbing onto the street from hidden staircases, crates of flowers, bags of fruit in their arms. I have no idea where they bring these gifts from. What gardens have they been tending to underneath my feet? Perhaps there is a whole other city living, thriving, beneath me. The thought makes me speed up, shift my body closer to the curb, away from those holes and these men. I have only just hoisted myself up into this new world; I do not want anything or anyone to pull me back down.

As I travel farther north, I move my head left to right, up and down, acknowledging every unfamiliar thing, greeting each green and white street sign, each gift store Lady Liberty statue, some as big as a child. Halal and kosher signs blink their welcome, and the cross-signal man clicks at me. It’s my heartbeat that’s as loud as the city now, taking it all in, and I have the sudden impulse to click my own fingers, hail a cab like they do in the movies. But the traffic is moving south on this street, cars weaving left and right as they pass me, claiming and conceding inches from one another at best, and no one looks to be getting anywhere faster than me.

Feet aching, muscles stiff from the long bus ride, I consider calling Noah, asking him for the shortest route to his apartment. But we haven’t spoken to each other yet. Not really. Text messages hastily sent and quickly answered don’t count, and I don’t even know his last name. Thinking about it, I should probably be a little wary. A man opening up his home to a stranger like this. Room available, the ad said. Own bed, shared bathroom. As if it might be normal to share the bed, too. $300 P/W—all included. I don’t know what all included means. I hope it means breakfasts, or a cup of coffee at least. I’ve booked the room for one week to start, and that’ll be half of the money in my pocket gone. I don’t let myself think about what might happen after those seven days are up, except to remind myself that a week is long enough to find another way. If something is wrong with this Noah surname-unknown guy, I’ll simply find that other way, and fast.

It’s not like I haven’t had to do this kind of thing before. Only this time, if I have to start over, I’ll be starting over in New York City.

Despite my sore feet, I feel a slow fizz of excitement, as if this city is carbonating my blood. I have come back to the place I was conceived. All those years of moving around the Midwest, of not knowing the kids in my class, or the name of my mother’s latest boyfriend, or where she was when she didn’t come home at night—they were merely lessons, preparation. For this. For standing on my own two feet, unnoticed, in the best possible way. Within twenty-four hours of arriving here all those years ago, my mother had come to rely on the sympathies of strangers. I won’t do that with this Noah whoever, even if he turns out to be the nicest person in New York. I won’t do that with anyone here. I have earned my independence, and I won’t squander my future on something so hard-won. I have 79.1 years promised to me, that’s the life expectancy they gave to girls born in 1996, like me. 79.1 years—I learned that in second or third grade, in some school, in some town I can’t quite remember, but I’ve never forgotten the number, or how it felt to count out the years I had already used up, subtract them from the life span of a girl, and see what I had left. Here, tonight, on my eighteenth birthday, I have more than sixty years ahead of me. I’m going to make a whole world of those years, starting now.

Later, when we get to that next part, it won’t take long for a man with fingers at my neck to prove me wrong. He will mock my sincerity, laugh at the idea of a girl like me making her own world. He will be so sure of his own right to my body, he will leave nothing but the memory of that girl behind.

We will keep coming back to this part. No matter how hard I try, the streets and sounds of Manhattan will fade, the men with their fruits and their flowers will disappear, and we will end up down there on the rocks. It’s inevitable, no matter how much I try to distract you. Because this hopeful, heaving night is just one part of my story. The other story is this: there is the body of a dead girl waiting, down on the banks of the Hudson River.

The man who did this has left her there, gone home. And soon there will be a lonely woman who looks down, across, at the dead girl. I can see this lonely woman coming, or see her already there, and she’s sadder than I have ever been, because her sorrow is still simmering. It hasn’t boiled over and scalded her life, which makes her feel that nothing important, nothing meaningful, has ever happened to her.

I am about to happen to her.

About The Author

Jacqueline Bublitz is a writer, feminist, and arachnophobe who lives between Melbourne, Australia, and her hometown on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. She is the author of Before You Knew My Name and Leave the Girls Behind. Find out more at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (November 1, 2022)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982198992

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Raves and Reviews

"BEFORE YOU KNEW MY NAME crackles with life and energy. It is a tour de force of imagination, empathy and righteous fury."

– The New York Times Book Review

"A brave and timely novel which will fuel the debate on women's rights to walk safely through our streets. I raced through the pages, anxious for resolution, yet at the same time not wanting this beautiful writing to finish."

– Clare Mackintosh, author of I LET YOU GO

"A furiously feminist breath of fresh air."

– Paste

“Unflinching and heartbreaking; powerful and empowering, the story of Alice and Ruby is our story, the story of every woman, everywhere. I know I’ll be thinking about it — and them — for a very long time to come."

– Carole Johnstone, award-winning author of MIRRORLAND

"BEFORE YOU KNEW MY NAME will make you cry, make you angry, make you think. Jacqueline Bublitz pushes the boundaries of crime fiction in all the right ways. It’s a deeply moving, deeply original, story that, hands down, is one of the best novels of the year."

– Alex Finlay, author of THE NIGHT SHIFT

"The most wonderful book. Unusual, beautiful, feminist, gripping, deserves to win prizes. I loved it so much."

– Marian Keyes, internationally bestselling author of GROWN UPS

"A really remarkable book - so fresh and original. I've never read anything quite like this."

– Laura Barnett, author of The VERSIONS OF US

"I fell head over heels in love with this heartbreaking, beautiful and hugely important novel. Jacqueline Bublitz's prose is luminous and the up-all-night, just-one-more-page plot is brilliantly clever and original. Everyone should read this book."

– Rosie Walsh, author of THE MAN WHO DIDN'T CALL

"An astounding debut novel that every woman will feel in their bones. At last, a whodunnit, where the victim is the front and centre of the story. Beautifully written, real, feminist and properly haunting, it deserves all the awards."

– Lizzy Dent, author of THE SUMMER JOB

"An unputdownable debut - striking, moving, gripping throughout and so sharp on the things that unite us."

– Elizabeth Kay, author of SEVEN LIES

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