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Psychological Thriller

LOCK EVERY DOOR . . . Between the covers

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LED coverIt could be said that fate has not treated Jules Larsen with kindness. Her family disintegrated. Sister Jane mysteriously went missing one night, last seen getting into a black VW Beetle, but never to be seen again. Her mother, literally crippled with cancer and her father, metaphorically so but by unpayable medical bills, perished in a disastrous fire. Jules paid her way through college and graduated with a qualification that secured her a non-job as a gopher and photocopying skivvy in an anonymous New York office. When they decided to ‘rationalise their human resources’ her job was one of the first to go. Ah well, at least Jules had her relationship with sweet, goofy, sexy Andrew, and their shared apartment. Until she came home one time and found lovely Andrew between the legs of some random girl. Andrew is the keyholder, and so adding homelessness to emotional injury, it’s Jules who has to go.

Jules ends up sleeping on the couch of her best college friend, Chloe. Down, definitely, and almost out. Until her daily scan of the situations vacant notices gives her a faint sniff of hope. Someone wants an apartment sitter. It’s not just any old apartment, though. The apartment is in one of New York’s most celebrated buildings – The Bartholomew. Neither as celebrated nor as notorious as The Dakota, The Bartholomew shares spectacular views over Central Park, is built with the same attention to German Gothic details, and is regarded with awe by passers-by as they gaze up at its pediments and gargoyles.

Not only does Jules get to stay in a luxury apartment, but she will be paid what is, to her, a ridiculously high salary. She feels totally intimidated by the interview with The Bartholomew’s expensively dressed agent, but she must have done something right, because she gets the gig.

There are one or two rules, however. She must never spend a night away from the building. On no account is she allowed visitors, day or night. And under no circumstances must she ever approach or bother any other the bona fide residents of the building, all of whom are madly wealthy, and some of whom are internationally well known.

Too good to be true? Of course it is! It’s not long before the century-old history the building begins to assert itself into Jules’s consciousness. What happened to the previous sitters in apartment 12A? Why did the building’s founder and leading light throw himself to his death from an upper storey while several of his staff were laid out in death, on stretchers lined up on the sidewalk below? Can anyone in the building be trusted? Charlie, the benevolent doorman? Nick, the solicitous and warm-hearted doctor from across the hallway? Greta Manville, the reclusive writer, author of a book which entranced Jules, and thousands of others in their teenage years?

pseudonymThis is a very clever thriller. Riley Sager (right), as he did in his previous novel Last Time I Lied, flips time sequences to keep us guessing as to precisely what is going on. His solution to the conspiracy which binds all The Bartholomew residents together is totally unexpected, and just about plausible. If you are a fan of claustrophobic Gothick thrillers where even the wallpaper in the bedroom has a sinister intent, and the dumb waiter creaks into view carrying a deadly threat, then you will love this. Lock Every Door is published by Ebury Press and will be available from 25th July.

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THE BOY WHO FELL . . . Between the covers

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TBWFThis is a chillingly clever whodunnit shot through with a caustic examination of life among the moneyed classes of contemporary Ireland, particularly Dublin’s nouveau riche and their over-indulged teenage children. Fans of Jo Spain’s DI Tom Reynolds will be overjoyed to see him return for his fifth case, and those who know the author only through her spellbinding standalone novels such as The Confession and Dirty Little Secrets should make up for lost time immediately!

Glenmore House has a dark reputation. A few years ago, a husband killed his wife and child with a kitchen knife before hanging himself. Since that trauma, the house has stood empty, slowly being reclaimed by nature. Unholy. Unvisited. Unloved. Except by a little clique of privately educated teenagers who use the place to smoke a little dope and drink a little alcohol. Well, OK, rather too much of both, but our story begins, like many another good yarn on One Dark Night ….

This particular dark night ends in tragedy, as after he and his friends indulge in some horseplay with an ouija board, young Luke Connolly plunges to his death from an upstairs window. The youngsters involved in the escapade are not, however, from some run down social housing estate, the victims of neglect, poor schooling and brutalised by deprivation. No, Luke, Charlotte, Hazel, Brian, Jacob and Dylan are all students at the prestigious and very expensive Little Leaf College and their parents, while possibly having more money than sense, are pillars of the community. But. And there is a rather large but in the person of Daniel Konaté Jones. Daniel is mixed race, has a ‘job’ as a DJ, and is tolerated by the group as something rather exotic, like a strange tropical orchid springing up in the herbaceous border . The police investigating the death are quick to arrest Daniel, and their case against him is sewn up with speed and, to mix metaphors, seen as tighter than a camel’s arse in a sandstorm.

Daniel is related to one of Tom Reynolds’ most respected officers, and when she asks him to take a look at the case, he reluctantly agrees. There are just one or two complications, though. First, Daniel is refusing to say anything – not a word – to investigating officers or his lawyer. Then, Reynolds becomes aware that Daniel is gay, and that, despite protestations from parents and friends, it appears that Danny and Luke were “an item.” Thirdly, the grief of Luke’s parents at his death has to run alongside the tragic demise of Luke’s twin brother Ethan, who is near death in a local hospice.

JSJo Spain is the literary Diva of Deviousness, and while we learn early in the piece that Glenmore House has a bloody history, she waits for some while before reconnecting the earlier slaughter with the death of Luke Connolly. When she does – and Reynolds realises the connection a paragraph or three before we do – the investigation takes on a whole new slant.

It should be a serious criminal offence for someone to write with the fluency, panache and skill at misdirection as Jo Spain, but while she remains a free woman, enjoy The Boy Who Fell. You will find beautiful prose, conundrums-a-plenty and enough of the dark side to satisfy any fan of Noir fiction. Regarding her portraits of people, I can only suggest that if Rembrandt had laid down his brushes and taken up the pen, he would be pushed to make his subjects as alive – with all their flaws – as she does. The Boy Who Fell is published by Quercus and will be available on 27th June.

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DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS . . . Between the covers

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Jo Spain’s latest stand-alone crime novel begins with a death which is as sudden as it is violent. The victim of this savagery is only a bluebottle fly, slain by a passing bird, but the important part is where the fly has been before it became a Blackbird’s breakfast. Like countless thousands of its fellow Calliphora Vomitoria it has been innocently feasting and laying its eggs on a corpse. A very human corpse. The mortal remains (and not much does) of Olive Collins has been gently liquefying inside her cottage for months. Her neighbours in the exclusive gated hamlet of Withered Vale have been going about their business oblivious to Olive’s fate.

DLS coverWithered Vale? Hardly your standard estate agent euphemism. Honeysuckle Meadows, Skylark Leys, Virginia Reach, Lakeside View, maybe, but Withered Vale? Years ago, the man who farmed the fields now built over was over-zealous with his pesticide, and nothing grew ever again. The enterprising developer, alert to a possible marketing triumph, chose to retain the local name, thinking that it had a certain ironic snap to it which might appeal to wealthy young professionals. He was right. No. 4 The Vale – Olive’s cottage – dates from before the development, however, and is dwarfed by the arrivistes.

Once Olive’s demise is discovered, the police descend. Frank Brazil, desperate for retirement and a quiet life, has said his prayers hoping that it is a suicide. His young partner Emma Child gleefully discovers taped up ventilation outlets and a boiler that has been fatally tinkered with, thus suggesting something darker, however, and Spain sets to work describing the other residents of the Vale as, one by one, they all become suspects – and what a brilliantly wicked job she makes of it.

There’s poor porn-addicted George Richmond, set up in his designer home, No. 1, by his wealthy showbiz father, and No. 7 houses debonair ladies’ man Ron Ryan with his sunbed tan and simple philosophy of ‘get it while – and when – you can’. At No. 5 live the Hennessys, Matt, Chrissy and their rather odd son Cam. Spain has shown flashes of dark humour in her previous novels, but she lets her considerable talent for satire off the leash when she lays into David and Lily Solanke, in their self-righteous vegetarian paradise within the walls of No.2. David is so exasperatingly ‘woke’ that Lily, pregnant with the twins, curses his kindness:

“Soon, David was playing music to her bump and lying with his head in her lap so her could hear the twins gurgling in the amniotic fluid. He treated her belly with reverence, gentle and worshipping. She felt like a Faberg
é egg. A Fabergé egg that wanted her husband to do her doggy-style because she was so damned horny.”

We meet Ed and Amelia Miller
from No. 6 while they are soaking up the sun in their Andalusian apartment, but their reaction when they hear of Olive’s death suggests that her passing lifts a shadow that has been cast over their lives. No. 3 is home to Alison and Holly Daly, single mum and teenage daughter and, like the Millers, neither of them sheds anything resembling a tear.

JSThus Spain sets up a writhing nest of vipers, every one of whom has a very good reason for wanting Olive Collins dead and out of its life. The narrative darts back and forth between the homes as we learn the hopes, sins and insecurities of the residents, each with a flimsy alibi and united by a mixture of fear and loathing for the apparently mild-mannered resident of No. 4 The Vale. As we scratch our heads wondering whodunnit, could we be looking at some kind of collective guilt, à la An Inspector Calls? The solution, when it comes, is deliciously perverse and very satisfying. Jo Spain (right) has a talent to enthrall, and in an afterword to this book she writes of her early love of reading:

“My heart was won by the written word. It’s been a lifelong affair. If I can give anybody the gift of a good story, a gift I still treasure when I cuddle up in the chair with a book at night, then my job is done.”

Her job is indeed done, and done with a sense of élan and literary devilment unmatched by anyone currently writing crime fiction. Dirty Little Secrets is published by Quercus and will be available on 7th February.

Click the links below to read reviews of earlier novels by Jo Spain.

The Darkest Place

The Confession

Sleeping Beauties

Beneath The Surface

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THE SUSPECT . . . Between the covers

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Kate Waters was introduced to readers in Fiona Barton’s novel, The Widow (2016) and made her second appearance in The Child (2017). Now she returns in The Suspect and is very much “the story” rather than just a reporter investigating the dark things that happen to other people. Two teenage girls have celebrated the end of their ‘A’ Levels by heading off on the adventure of a lifetime – a back-packing trip to Thailand. When phone calls home and emails suddenly stop, the parents of Alex and Rosie are at first uneasy, but then disquiet turns into blind panic.

ts coverSensing a very productive headline story that will run and run, Kate Waters uses all her empathy and tricks-of-the-trade to get close to the girls’ families, and the story does indeed have the whole enchilda. Beautiful teenage girls, disappearance in a Bangkok drug den, frantic parents, the possibility of incompetence by foreign police – what could possibly go wrong? Jake Waters is what could possibly go wrong. Kate’s son has been away in Thailand “finding himself” after a failed spell at university, and her journalistic glee at the ramifications of the story is brutally brought up short when she finds that her errant boy might be at the very epicentre of the story she has claimed as her own.

The technique of telling a story from several different narratives is hardly new, but few can have handled it better in recent times than Fiona Barton. The events both here in England and further afield unfold through the eyes of Kate Walters herself, the distraught parents, and the local police team lead by DI Bob Sparkes and his DS, Zara Salmond. Inevitably, the perceptions of Kate Walters are more immediate because her narrative is first person. Barton has probably forgotten more about the world of journalism than most crime writers will ever know, and she makes good use of her experience when she describes the gears grinding as Kate switches from mother to reporter and then back to mother again. On her own website, Fiona Barton writes:

“I should say here that Kate Waters is not me. I’ve been where she goes but she is a composite of many Kates I have worked with. She is in her fifties, has juggled career and family, chafing at her hospital consultant husband’s dismissal of her job and the guilt of missing parent evenings and football matches. She is world-weary at times, terrified by the technology changing the media and insecure about her role. But she is still driven by the need to find the story. And she refuses to go until she has nailed it…”

FionaIt must be said that this is a story long on personal misery and rather short on redemption, but it is beautifully written. The nuances of conversation, gesture and body language are exquisitely observed even if they sometimes make for painful reading, such as the bittersweet moments between Bob Sparkes and his dying wife. My own children are, thankfully, well past the age of “doing” Thailand, but my advice to those with gap-year offspring is, with all respect to Fiona Barton (right), don’t read this book! Once your teenagers have shouldered their backpacks and waved goodbye at the departure gate, your mind will hark back to The Suspect it will be nessun dorma for you!

The Suspect is a superior blend of psychological thriller and police procedural, and Fiona Barton keeps us guessing until the last page and a half. To be fair she does give us a fairly important clue much earlier in the novel, but – quite correctly in my case – she expects that we will forget about it in all the to-ing and fro-ing between Bangkok, Hampshire and London. The Suspect is published by Bantam Press and will be out on 24th January.

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THE RUMOUR . . . Between the covers

Where would crime fiction readers and writers be without murder? It is the human act which lies at the heart of countless thrillers, police procedurals, serial killer investigations and tales of revenge. Someone more erudite than I will know when the first murder mystery was published, but I suspect it was Poe’s 1841 The Murders In The Rue Morgue. There are not as many actual murders in the Sherlock Holmes stories as one might imagine, and it wasn’t until the twentieth century that corpses became de rigeur in crime novels. Since then,murder has taken may forms in crime novels, from subtle poisoning to vivid and visceral butchery, but I can’t recall a novel which has dealt with the subject of children who kill. In real life that is an infrequently seen phenomenon, so much so that when it does happen the names of the killers tend to live long int he public memory.

Even in harsh socio-political regimes,no-one executes children. So what happens when they have served their time?Here in Britain, we know that they are eventually released, given new identities and plausible fictitious back-stories, and closely monitored in the hope that they can rebuild their lives. This balancing act by the judicial system is the central feature in Lesley Kara’s excellent debut novel The Rumour. A lifetime ago, Sally McGowan stabbed little Robbie Harris to death. She was found guilty, detained,but then released into the community and given a new life. A life, Robbie Harris’s distraught family insist, that was denied their little boy.

In the unassuming Essex seaside town of Flinstead (think, maybe, real-life Frinton or Walton-on-the-Naze) Jo Critchley, single mum to Alfie and estate agent’s gofer,lives in her modest two-up, two-down terraced house. She has moved up from London taking a break from Alfie’s dad Michael, and to be – a couple of streets away –  near her mum. Jo is not ‘born and bred’ Flinstead, and it is taking her a while to become part of the school gate sorority. Still, she has joined a local book group, and added her name to the baby-sitting circle. One afternoon as she waits among the throng of chattering mums outside Alfie’s school, she overhears someone sharing the startling gossip that child-killer Sally McGowan is hiding in plain sight amid the modest bungalows and shabby boarding houses of Flinstead. In her anxiety to be accepted and to be someone who should be listened to, she shares this rumour with the women at her book club. And thus her nightmare begins.

As the Sally McGowan story grows legs, wings, and then takes flight, Jo is caught up in a febrile swirl of false accusations and journalistic opportunism. Who is Sally McGowan? Is it the woman who owns the hippie artifact shop? Is it the artist who has made a collage portrait of strips of newsprint reporting on the McGowan affair?

 Lesley Kara tells most of the story through the eyes of Jo Critchley. The style is direct,conversational and without literary pretension. Kara cleverly misdirects us for two hundred pages or so until she produces a plot twist which turns the narrative on its head. This is a breathtakingly original thriller, set in a humdrum location, but written with style and verve powerful enough to suck in readers, especially those who love Domestic Noir. The Rumour will be on the shelves from 27th December in hardback, but is available now in a digital edition.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN SOHO . . . Transworld crime fiction showcase 2018

The Great and The Good (plus yours truly) gathered at the decidedly swish Soho Hotel in Richmond Mews on the evening of 29th November for what has become an annual – and eagerly anticipated – event, the Transworld crime fiction showcase. Transworld have an enviable record of not only snaring established writers, but spotting talented authors and giving them a stage on which to make their debut.

 After a few glassesof the cup that cheers and inebriates we went down to one of the hotel’s film screening rooms to meet the three writers who were to be centre stage. In the chair was none other than Patricia Nicol – Sunday Times journalist, editor and author. The literary debutante was Lesley Kara, and she talked about how her novel The Rumour had been influenced by real life cases of children murdering other children.The spectres of Mary Bell, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson obviously cast a long shadow over her book, and she spoke with great conviction about the moral dilemma faced by society when these killers reach adulthood and strive for rehabilitation, with or without the anonymity provided by the state. The Rumour will be published on 27thDecember 2018.

 Fiona Barton already has two highly regarded novels – The Widow (2016) and The Child (2017) – to her name and The Suspect will be on the shelves from 24th January 2019. It has become something of a rite of passage for aspirational youngsters to heave their back-packs onto their shoulders and head off to the Far East or Australasia in search of who-knows-what, leaving their parents anxiously waiting for a text, a Skype message or – heaven forfend – a postcard saying that all is well and they are having a great time. Fiona takes us into the nightmare world of parents when two girls go missing on a trip to Thailand, and the fate of the eighteen year-olds becomes a lurid and speculative media story, She also explained that her narrative style, where the story is told from several contrasting viewpoints, stems from her work as a journalist where interviewing a range of people can reveal differing versions of reality.

 The graphics for The Secretary highlight the first six letters of the second word, and Renée Knight has based her second novel on the uniquely ambiguous position of the women –and it is usually women – who are personal secretaries to powerful corporate individuals. They are the silent shadows in the rooms where decisions are made that will influence the lives of thousands, and they witness the rage and the frustrations of the powerful. What, Renée Knight asks, happens when one such person, silent and discreet for years, is pushed to the point where what she knows and what she has seen hands her a potentially deadly weapon? The Secretary will be available from 21st February 2019.

THE LIAR’S ROOM . . . Between the covers

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Imagine a world without liars. Imagine a world without novelists. OK, I know that we all know that novelists are, most of the time, describing things that never actually happened, but that’s what we pay them for. Lying is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Think of all the memorable quotes:

“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”
“History is a set of lies agreed upon.”
“The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others.”
“The worst part about being lied to is knowing you weren’t worth the truth”
“There’s only two people in your life you should lie to… the police and your girlfriend.”

TLR coverAlso Sprach
, in no particular order (put the name to the quote for a bit of fun, but no prizes, sadly) Napoleon, Jack Nicholson, Hitler, Sartre, and Nietzsche. In this brilliant new novel by Simon Lelic we have, in theatrical terms, an intense two-hander between Susanna (a counsellor) and Adam (a troubled young man). Just a couple of problems here, though. First, neither person is exactly who they claim to be and, second, Adam has abducted Susanna’s daughter Emily and, for reasons which emerge as this extraordinary dialogue develops, wants her dead.

This is one of those books which reviewers dread. Not because of the quality of the writing and not because the pages drag. The problem is that the plot is so fiendish and so beautifully designed to suck the reader into a series of emotional quicksands, that any commentary has to be very carefully judged so that it gives nothing away.

What I can say is that Susanna lives alone with her daughter in a house where there are secret drawers, hidden bundles of photographs and memories which are witnesses to Susanna’s past. A past that she hopes she has left behind, just as her visions of the dead have receded so that they are now merely mental shadows. You will learn that Adam is connected to Susanna. Connected by memory, circumstance – and by something much, much more powerful.

The Liar’s Room (interesting placing of the possessive apostrophe) starts with a tiny giveaway, but then proceeds at a leisurely pace before a real sense of menace kicks in. I am not sure if ‘chromatologist’ is a real word, but I think anyone who studies the science of colour would agree that there are places in this novel where the mood goes beyond black into a place where the emotional darkness is so intense that we have no words to describe it.

Simon Lelic (right) simon copyis a writer who views the human condition with what some might term a jaundiced eye, as witnessed in his previous novel, The House – follow the link to read my review. He is all too aware of our weakness, our fallibility, and the lengths we will go to in order to preserve our fragile sense of normality. He doesn’t judge, however. He simply reports. This excellent book shows just how shrewd, how perceptive and how entertaining – in a swirling and disturbing sense – his writing is. The Liar’s Room is published by Viking/Penguin Random House and is out now.

 

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THE DEATH OF MRS WESTAWAY . . . Between the covers

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What would you do if you were all alone in the world, with no family, scraping a living reading Tarot Cards in a shabby booth on Brighton Pier, threatened with violence by loan sharks, and then you receive a letter from solicitors telling you that you have inherited a fortune? Hyperventilate? Punch the air with joy? Sing a hymn to whichever god you believe in? Harriet ‘Hal’ Westaway does none of these things. Because she knows that there has been a terrible mistake. She shares a surname with the deceased woman, but that is it. End of. Hal knows that she is not connected to the Mrs Westaway who has gone to meet her maker, leaving a vast rambling estate in Cornwall – and a prodigious bank balance – to her long-lost granddaughter.

TDOMW coverHal Westaway is no crook. She is not an opportunist. She has a conscience. She instinctively understands the difference between meum and teum. And yet. And yet. The gangster from whom she unwisely took out a desperation loan is angry and anxious for his 300%. Hal’s Brighton flat has already been turned over, and she knows that broken bones are next on the agenda. So, she accepts the invitation from the late Mrs Westaway’s solicitor to travel down to Cornwall to meet the family she never knew she had.

In a glorious take on the classic Reading Of The Will trope, Hal meets her new found family, principally Mrs Westaway’s three disinherited sons. Now, at least according to the the solicitor, Harding, Ezra and Abel Westaway are her uncles and, boy oh boy, are they in for a shock as Mr Treswick looks over his glasses, pauses for dramatic effect, and announces that Hal is the main beneficiary.

Once this irresistible set-piece is out of the way, we learn that Trepassen House has some dark – and I mean seriously dark – secrets. Ruth Ware milks the forbidding Manderley-style atmosphere for all it is worth, and she even gives us a Mrs Danvers in the person of the baleful and embittered housekeeper, Mrs Warren. Hal discovers that her late mother was once a part of the Trepassen household when she stayed with Mrs Westaway’s daughter Maud, to whom she was a distant cousin. But why on earth did Mrs Westaway think that Hal was her granddaughter. Was she mad? Simply perverse in wanting to humiliate her own children? And just what happened at Trepassen in that long hot summer of 1994?

RWRuth Ware (right) is not the first writer – nor will she be the last – to explore the lurid charms of a decaying mansion, its ghosts both real and imagined, and the dusty terrors of death, but she makes a bloody good job of it in The Death of Mrs Westaway. Hal Westaway is a delightful character, and you would require a heart of the hardest granite not to sympathise with her and the exquisite dilemma she faces. The plot is a dazzling mix of twists, surprises, and just the right amount of improbability. The Death of Mrs Westaway is a thriller which makes you keep the bedroom light on, and long for the safety of daylight. It looks like being another bestseller for Ruth Ware, and you can judge for yourselves on June 28th, when the book will be published by Harvill Secker.

 

NOW, HERE’S THE BEST BIT!

If my review of this cracking novel has tickled your what-not, and you want your own copy, you might just be in look. Either email me at the address below, putting Mrs Westaway as the subject:

fullybooked2016@yahoo.com

OR

Click the image below which will take you to the Fully Booked Facebook page. Simply ‘like’ the post, and your name will go into the digital hat. I’ll draw a winner from all the entries after the competition closes at 10.00pm on Sunday 1st July. Due to postal costs, the competition is only open to readers from the UK or the Irish Republic.

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WELCOME TO CAMP NIGHTINGALE . . . but the birds aren’t singing

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SUMMER CAMP – that particularly American institution which, for those of us in our dotage, evokes memories of Allan Sherman’s letter home from Camp Granada.

 

Camp Nightingale017RILEY SAGER (aka Todd Ritter) however takes a darker view. When Emma goes to Camp Nightingale, it is her first summer away from home. She learns how to play games, but she also learns a more sinister skill – how to lie. That golden summer dream becomes a twisted and feverish nightmare when three of Emma’s new-found friends set off to explore the woods, but are never seen again. It is inevitable that he subsequent furore spells the end for Camp Nightingale as a safe holiday destination for teenage girls. But times change. memories fade. Years after the terrible events of that summer, Emma is asked to return to the newly reopened camp. Will her return lay old ghosts to rest, or wake the spirits of the dead and rip away the veil of innocence to reveal a much darker truth?

LAST TIME I LIED  is published by Ebury Press/Penguin Random House, and will be available later this year. To find out more about Riley Sager, you can follow these links.

https://www.rileysagerbooks.com/

@riley_sager

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