Mystery of the Month – The Understudy

They all want their daughter to be the star of the show — but how far are they prepared to go to see their precious angel in the spotlight? The Understudy is a collaboration between four internationally bestselling authors — a psychological thriller about a group of stage-mothers set in a London performing arts school.

Serial Box, a digital platform, approached Sophie Hannah (author of the new Poirot novels) to write a story to be published as a series of audio and e-book episodes. They gave her the opportunity to hand-pick the other authors she wanted to work with, and she chose B A Paris (Behind Closed Doors), Clare Mackintosh (I Let You Go), and Holly Brown (Don’t Try To Find Me). Now in print format, The Understudy features each author writing from the perspective of one of the four women whose daughters attend the Orla Flynn Academy.

Kendall Donovan has brought daughter, Ruby, to the exclusive school, leaving behind their fancy home in America. She’s determined that no one learns the real reason they left in such a hurry. Carolyn Mordue despises Ruby after what she did to her daughter, Jess, the most talented girl at the academy. Now she’ll stop at nothing to ensure Jess secures the lead role in the show. Workaholic and perfectionist, Elise Bond, is focused on her elite business to the detriment of daughter, Sadie. And Bronnie Richardson is the wardrobe mistress who seems like the perfect mother — she has a great relationship with her daughter, Bel — but like all the other mothers, is hiding a secret.

Their lives are thrown into chaos when new student, Imogen Curwood, arrives at the school. Coincidentally (or not) on Imogen’s first day, Jess receives a terrifying threat in her locker. Carolyn immediately blames Ruby — last year, Ruby got into trouble for bullying Jess. The two girls have sorted out their differences but their mothers remain at loggerheads. When more threats appear, each more terrifying than the last, the women take matters into their own hands. Especially since Adam Racki, the scarf-wearing, Shakespeare-quoting school headmaster, doesn’t appear to be listening to their concerns. Amidst the rivalry and finger-pointing, the women all agree on one thing — something is seriously wrong with Imogen, who at times seems almost spooky — and they worry their daughters may be in danger.

These are characters you’ll love to hate: all four women are bitchy, selfish and hateful (Bronnie less-so), and they are all highly judgmental of each other — from their parenting skills, what they wear, and how they choose to live. By novel’s end this judgment has turned into suspicion and paranoia as they question if one of them might be dangerous. The individual voices of each character are at times hilarious, particularly Elise, who you can easily imagine rolling her eyes at everything that happens. The story really takes off when the women decide to get their hands dirty and do their own investigative work.

This story would make a fantastic television mini-series — it’s like Desperate Housewives meets Mean Girls meets Big Little Lies. Despite the overall tone of the novel verging on highly-entertaining melodrama, it also touches on serious topics such as bullying, suicide and drug addiction. The four authors must have thoroughly enjoyed conspiring together. The Understudy is a real scream.

The Understudy by Sophie Hannah, B A Paris, Clare Mackintosh, and Holly Brown is published in Australia by Hachette.

Standout Simile:

Beside me, Carolyn scrambles onto the stage like a pregnant woman getting out of a pool, and Bronnie and Adam are up too, and all that’s missing are the torches and pitchforks.

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