“The Lying Game” by Ruth Ware

The Lying GameAfter last year’s blockbuster The Woman in Cabin 10, British author Ruth Ware is back with her third thriller, The Lying Game. The online reviewers who blasted Cabin 10‘s protagonist, Lo, for not being sufficiently likable should be happier with new heroine Isa, a young mum whose main priority is her baby Freya:

“She is mine and my responsibility. Anything could happen—she could choke in her sleep, the house could burn down, a fox could slink into the open bathroom window and maul her. And so I sleep with one ear cocked, ready to leap up, heart pounding, at the least sign that something is wrong.”

As the book begins, Isa is summoned to the village of Salten by her old boarding-school friend Kate. Two other former classmates, Fatima and Thea, are also called. The four women have wound up in very different circumstances in the two decades since they were at school together. Fatima is a married doctor with two children, and she’s also become a practicing Muslim; Thea is a mess, anorexic and alcoholic; Isa is a civil servant living with her partner (and Freya’s dad) Owen. They are all Londoners, while Kate has remained in Salten, where her father once served on the faculty of the school. She is either unwilling or unable to move on with her life.

The book builds slowly, since the reader doesn’t know exactly what’s going on until almost halfway through. We know that Kate’s summons is a very big deal, important enough to make her three former besties drop everything and come running. Something big happened at the school to cause the quartet to get expelled. In the present day, we learn that a human bone recently turned up on Salten’s beach; that is presumably the reason for Kate wanting to get the gang back together, but it takes a while to learn whose bone it is and how and why it may affect the women.

The title of the book implies that no one can truly be trusted—it refers to a game the girls played in school, where they would try to lie convincingly and win points if outsiders fell for it. (They vowed never to lie to each other, though eventually the reader may suspect that perhaps Freya is the only character with nothing to hide.) Unlike Cabin 10, which kept me up late into the night furiously turning the pages, The Lying Game moves at a more leisurely pace; its biggest assets are its diverse, well-rounded quartet of main characters, and Ware’s vivid descriptions of the joys and terrors of motherhood.

Note: The Lying Game will be published on July 25, 2017. Thanks to Gallery Books/Scout Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

“Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall by Noah HawleyMy book group read Before the Fall a few months ago, but I was unable to attend that meeting—and when I saw that the book was about a plane crash, I decided to give it a miss. I can sometimes be a nervous flyer, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to read a novel on the subject shortly before I was due to embark on a 10-hour transatlantic flight.

When the book won this year’s Edgar Award for best novel, however, I figured I should check it out. Unlike every other mystery award, the Edgar is peer-reviewed, and the people on the committee read tons of books. As a result, the winning entry has to be interesting and different enough to captivate a group of readers who are accomplished writers themselves.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Before the Fall is how incredibly timely it feels, despite the fact that it was published a year ago and written well before that. The story deals with  the intersection of a couple of very wealthy families and a Fox News-type network, which is drumming up ratings by exploiting a family tragedy (shades of the Seth Rich story). I was half-expecting a politician with small hands and bad hair to show up.

The mysterious crash of the luxury private jet, which was flying from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City, killed nine people and left two survivors: four-year-old JJ Bateman and painter Scott Burroughs, who had been invited aboard the flight by JJ’s mom Maggie. The wife of David Bateman, head of the Fox-like network ALC News, Maggie had taken an interest in Scott’s art and impulsively asked if he’d like to join them when she found out he was heading to the city for some meetings.

Not quite a starving artist, but not a terribly successful one either, Scott was trying to turn his life around after recovering from alcoholism. He had painted a series of large-scale works depicting disasters—an oncoming tornado, a house on fire, and even a plane crash—before stepping aboard the doomed aircraft. Scott’s unlikely survival, and the motif of his paintings, make him an object of suspicion to ALC News’ O’Reilly-like news anchor, Bill Cunningham (“the angry white man people invited into their living rooms to call bullshit at the world”). Ironically, before he died, David Bateman had made moves to push Bill off the air, because he’d been caught tapping the phone of a rival broadcaster. Before he could get rid of him, David died, and Bill immediately turned his old boss into a martyr, promising every night that he would not rest until he got to the bottom of what had really happened to that flight.

Before the Fall is a dense 400-page novel, and it probably could have been cut by 50 pages if Hawley, writer and showrunner for FX’s acclaimed series “Fargo,” hadn’t spent quite so much time waxing philosophical. A random example: “We believe we have invented our machine world to benefit ourselves, but how do we know we aren’t here to serve it? A camera must be aimed to be a camera. To service a microphone, a question must be asked. Twenty-four hours a day, frame after frame, we feed the hungry beast, locked in perpetual motion as we race to film it all. Does television exist for us to watch, in other words, or do we exist to watch television?”

Because I read a lot of thrillers that are only trying to deliver the purest adrenaline rush possible, I actually appreciated a lot of Hawley’s flowery musings, but after a certain point, I just wanted to find out what had happened to the plane. But I’m guessing that willingness to grapple with The Big Questions is what made the committee select After the Fall for the award. Many years from now, this is the sort of book people will turn to in order to find out what life was like in this peculiar era.

“You Will Know Me” by Megan Abbott

You Will Know MeThe crime fiction genre known as “domestic suspense” has been described as playing on “the universal fear that we might not know those closest to us as well as we think” (Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian). When You Will Know Me opens, Katie Knox’s family presents a united front: they are all working toward a single goal, to help teenage daughter Devon achieve her dream of being a world-class gymnast. Then a suspicious death changes everything.

Katie’s husband, Eric, is Devon’s biggest cheerleader, willing to do whatever it takes to provide her with everything she needs, from the best coaching to the sparkliest uniforms. Devon herself is relentless, pressuring herself to get the best grades as well as the top scores at competitions. Little brother Drew is the family’s “little stalwart,” but recently, he’s been plagued by strange dreams that seem almost like visions, and Katie realizes, “There was so much going on in his head that she hadn’t known before.”

The hit-and-run death of a much-loved young man who was dating Devon’s coach’s niece roils the close-knit, sometimes fractious gymnastics community. (Abbott never tells us in which city or state her story is set—there were times when I would have preferred a little more sense of place, but there is something to be said for making it Any Suburb, U.S.A.) Katie begins to suspect that the people closest to her know more than they’re letting on. But everyone’s first priority, as ever, is to keep Devon from getting distracted. Not even a crime committed in their midst can be allowed to stop her from focusing on her rise to the top of her sport; the girl’s athletic achievements lift up the gym where she practices, as every parent hopes a little of her magic will rub off on their own children.

It’s hard not to read this book, which is written in the third person but primarily shows us the world through Katie’s eyes, without wondering what decisions you’d make if you were in Katie’s shoes. How far would you go, how much would you spend, what sacrifices would you make to give your loved one a shot at Olympic gold? After reading You Will Know Me, you’ll never look at those eerily self-possessed teenage athletes, from gymnasts to ice skaters to tennis players, in the same way again.

“You Should Have Known” by Jean Hanff Korelitz

You Should Have KnownYou Should Have Known, which I picked up at a library sale for a buck, looks like it was marketed as a novel of suspense: “The thriller we’re obsessed with” (Entertainment Weekly) is printed right there on the cover. However, this is by no means a conventional thriller; it’s divided into three parts, and each is quite different.

First, we have Before, which begins as a comedy of manners set in the world of Manhattan’s wealthy elite. Marriage counselor Grace and her husband Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist, have been granted entrée into this privileged world because (a) they inherited their Upper East Side flat and (b) their son Henry was admitted into his super-exclusive private school as a legacy (Grace was a graduate, back before Manhattan was completely overrun by hedge fund managers). Grace has just penned a self-help manual called You Should Have Known: Why Women Fail to Hear What the Men in Their Lives Are Telling Them. “You know how we always tell ourselves, You never know, when someone does something we don’t see coming? We’re shocked that he turns out to be a womanizer, or an embezzler. He’s an addict. He lies about everything,” she tells an interviewer. “We never hold ourselves accountable for what we bring to the deception. We have to learn to be accountable.”

If you suspect by now that Grace is about to receive the mother of all comeuppances, well, you’d be right. No spoilers here, but During, the second part of the book, is by far the juiciest and most fun, as Grace makes one shocking discovery after another about her husband. It’s hard to believe a Harvard-educated therapist could be so completely fooled—naturally, the friends and in-laws who abruptly disappeared from her life Knew All Along that there was something seriously wrong with the outwardly personable doctor—but the second section is still a heck of a page-turner.

The final third, After, is more of a traditional Woman Rebuilds Her Life After Devastating Setback story, where Grace discovers that people who live in small towns are more soulful and less status-obsessed than wealthy Manhattanites. The paperback edition of You Should Have Known is almost 450 pages long and I feel like it could have been cut by 100 pages or so. But largely due to that middle section, I still devoured the book in three days. It’s the perfect summer read if you’re looking for something that’s suspenseful but also deviates a bit from the standard thriller formula.

“Dark Corners” by Ruth Rendell

Dark Corners by Ruth RendellIt’s a bit ironic that the final novel by Ruth Rendell deals with an author in the throes of writers’ block. Rendell, who wrote 66 books (including many under the pseudonym Barbara Vine), never seemed to suffer from that affliction, yet she has no problem getting into the mind of a novelist who is having difficulty completing his second novel. (“Tinkering with it was a waste of time… he could create a new detective, a woman, perhaps. He would begin by making a list of characters, looking up names online and finding new ones in the surname dictionary.”)

The blocked writer is a young man named Carl, and even if the new book is giving him trouble, he should, at least, have a steady source of income: renting a flat in the large home he inherited in London’s affluent Maida Vale neighborhood. Unfortunately for Carl, the tenant he chooses turns out to be a sinister blackmailer who threatens to run to the media and spill the beans about the fact that Carl sold some diet pills to an actress friend of his, who promptly dropped dead after taking them. (The diet pills had been left in the bathroom cupboard when Carl inherited his house.) “It would be a juicy story: ‘Author Kills Actress.’ Carl would never have a serious literary career again.”

Carl didn’t intend to give his friend Stacey a fatal dosage of medication, but even if her death was inadvertent, he doesn’t want to be dragged into a scandal. Meanwhile, there are a few other subplots, one involving another friend of the dead actress, Lizzie, who surreptitiously moves into Stacey’s flat by means of a spare key; Lizzie’s dad, Tom, newly retired with a free pensioner’s bus pass that allows him to begin exploring the city of London; and the evil tenant, Dermot, who begins courting a mousy woman he meets at church. I assumed all of the various threads would somehow come together at the end, but most of them (including one in which Lizzie is kidnapped) just kind of fizzle out. In fact, Dark Corners ends so abruptly that I was honestly shocked when I realized the book was over. I couldn’t help but wonder if Rendell had truly completed the book to her satisfaction before suffering the stroke that ultimately led to her death a few months later.

Rendell does a masterful job of depicting Carl’s mental torture as the situation he is in grows worse and worse, but it’s not a particularly enjoyable thing to read about. I found Dark Corners fairly unpleasant to get through, with not many sympathetic characters. (It’s rather surprising that Carl’s lovely girlfriend, Nicola, sticks around as long as she does.) Unfortunately, this posthumously published book is not one of Rendell’s best, but at least she left us with a huge back catalog of novels far better than this one.