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.

Are You A Writer Who Goes With the Flow?

Go with the flow. It’s advice someone might give you if you’re resisting change or feeling troubled about a matter you can’t control. Just go with the flow.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘going with the flow’ can mean doing what everyone else does. But to me, the concept of going with the flow is about feeling relaxed and carefree; unbothered by the drama that life throws our way. Sounds like a great way to live.

So, how can we apply this way of thinking to our writing?

Going with the flow when your writing career hits a snag

You’re a little leaf in a big river full of other, talented leaves (i.e. other writers). You’re hurtling down the river: entering writing competitions, submitting your work to publishers, having some wins and moving in the right direction. But then suddenly, you hit a snag. You get stuck on a rock. The rock of rejection. What do you do? How can you go with the flow, when you’re stuck?

Going with the flow doesn’t necessarily mean being passive. It can mean acknowledging you’ve hit an obstacle and thinking of creative ways to overcome it.

Which plan sounds best? Sitting on the rock and feeling cranky? Or accepting the rejection, learning from the experience and moving onto the next opportunity? Personally, I’d pick option two. (Although, I’ll admit that I feel cranky and upset for at least a day following a rejection– sometimes longer.)

Going with the flow when your writing goes in a different direction

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, sometimes you’ll hit a writing road block. The story you mapped out has taken an unexpected turn. Or you find that after months of pantsing-it, you’ve written yourself into a ditch. I meticulously plotted my whole story and it still didn’t turn out the way I expected. Now I’m rewriting it in an entirely different genre!

In this situation, going with the flow might mean recognising you’re stuck, trying something new and seeing if it works. I think my manuscript works much better as a psychological thriller instead of as a cosy mystery.

In her blog post Writing a crime novel – should you plan or go with the flow?, Louise Harnby quotes author Sophie Hannah, who says a plan needn’t thwart spontaneity. You might have a firmly plotted first draft but still feel like you need to make changes to characters, endings or plot strands. When Lee Child finds his character in an impossible situation, he will find a way for his character to get out of that situation and keep writing, rather than deleting the chapters that came before.

However, sometimes no matter how ‘zen’ you try to be, there will be days the words just don’t flow. And that’s okay. We all need to take a break every now and then. On those days, going with the flow might mean having a nap, going for a walk or meeting a friend for a coffee. The writing will still be there waiting for you when you’re ready to pick it up again.

Mystery of the Month – The Guest List

The wedding has been planned to perfection but no one could have predicted that one of the guests wouldn’t make it to the last dance alive. But the identity of who “gets it” and who is responsible won’t become apparent until the final moments of this show-stopping psychological thriller.

The Guest List is the follow-up to Lucy Foley’s bestselling novel The Hunting Party, and it’s another cracking whodunnit told from multiple point-of-view characters, all of whom have something to hide.

Successful magazine editor, Jules, is determined to have the perfect wedding with Will, a Bear-Grylls-style reality TV star. But underneath the veil of glitz and glamour lurks insecurities and jealousies. Wedding planner, Aoife, is hiding a personal tragedy behind her professional demeanour. Hannah is hoping for a fun weekend as the plus-one to husband, Charlie, Jules’ best friend (but she harbours suspicions they may be more than just friends). Jules’ sister, Olivia, is the reluctant bridesmaid experiencing trauma following an undisclosed incident, unable to reveal her terrible secret. And don’t forget Johnno, the unlikely best man who just can’t seem to get his life together. Rounding out the cast are Will’s unruly best mates from boarding school, where together they were involved in a dangerous initiation game called Survival.

The setting is an island off the coast of Ireland which can only be accessed by traversing tumultuous waves: a beautiful but remote location where you can easily fall into a peat bog, where no one will find you if you go missing, and where you might slip over the cliff edge and disappear into the sea. Not to mention there’s a wild storm brewing. With power outages, ominous notes and nasty pranks, this hostile environment adds to the confusion of the guests as they try to make sense of what has happened.

The Guest List is plotted to perfection. Lucy Foley masterfully manages multiple characters, each with complex individual storylines, and weaves them into a cohesive whole. The story alternates between the drunken revelry at the wedding reception (where it’s clear something terrible has happened, but not yet clear what) and the lead-up to the wedding. All the characters have a motive and all the clues are there and while it’s easier to guess the probable victim, the challenge is guessing whodunnit and why, making the reveal all the more chilling.

Lucy Foley has again successfully modernised the classic locked-room mystery, with a slew of secretive suspects embroiled in a suspenseful tale of toxic relationships, long-lasting grudges, betrayal, and the impact of trauma and tragedy.

The Guest List by Lucy Foley is published in Australia by Harper Collins.

Standout Simile:

The weather has cleared now and there’s sunlight on the water but the island is cast in the shadow of an overhanging cloud. It seems to crouch there like a great black beast, awaiting its next meal.

Are You A Natural-Born Writer?

As a school kid growing up, I thought I was good at writing.

I thought that because I liked reading, and writing stories in exercise books, that I was a natural-born writer. I even qualified for a special fiction writing course that was held at a university one weekend. Wow. So cool.

But there’s a lot more to being a good writer than being able to construct a logical sentence. And if I’m being honest, I got a “B” not an “A” in Grade 12 English.

It’s only been over the past few years, when I naively thought I’d turn my hand to writing a full-length novel, that I realised I might not be as good at writing as I thought I was. There are a few pieces of evidence that have led me to this conclusion.

Firstly, I will write something, believing it’s well-written. Then I’ll leave it for a little while, say a few weeks. Read it again and realise — it needs work. I’ll rewrite it. Then I’ll leave it again, say a few years. Read it again and realise — it’s utter shite. Am horrified I ever thought it was good. Ponder the possibility I may be delusional.

Secondly, I’ll give my writing to other people (readers, but non-writers) to read. Again, thinking these pieces of writing were well-written and expecting them to be impressed. The feedback has varied from: (a) radio silence, (b) politely advising me of a typo they found, and, (c) generalised comments along the lines of “yeah, I liked it”. This feedback suggests my work is not ready for submission.

And finally, reading the work of other writers. I know, I know, we aren’t supposed to compare ourselves with others. But I believe there is such a thing as a Magical Writing Unicorn. These are writers who are blessed with the ability to churn out spectacular sentences, come up with perfect plots and create complex characters. Think Margaret Atwood. People with a gift. I know writers like this. And I know I’m not one of them.

But. There’s a saying I saw on Pinterest. I don’t know who wrote it. It says: “Good things come to those who work their asses off and never give up.” (With: “Good things come to those who wait” crossed out above it). Even the Magical Writing Unicorns have to work hard. This means I have to work extra hard — writing, rewriting, editing, rewriting and editing again. Even if it takes years (it is taking years).

Then maybe one day I’ll read something I’ve written and be surprised — wow, did I really write that? One day, I’ll get that feedback I’ve been seeking. And one day, it might be me spinning spectacular sentences, planning perfect plots and creating complex characters and finding that it isn’t as hard as I once thought it was.

Mystery of the Month – Rules for Perfect Murders

What if writing a blog post could end in murder?

Malcolm ‘Mal’ Kershaw works at a Boston book store that specialises in mysteries, which is where Special Agent Gwen Mulvey finds him one wintry day. She wants to talk to Mal about a blog he wrote a few years ago – a list of eight perfect murders from popular mystery novels. Turns out someone has been inspired by Mal’s list, using it as a blueprint to commit real crimes. Mal is quick to offer his cooperation, agreeing to help Agent Mulvey in the hunt to find a twisted killer. But just like one of the big reveals in Malcolm’s favourite murders, the truth of what’s really going on is entirely unexpected.

Peter Swanson, author of The Kind Worth Killing and Before She Knew Him, uses his latest thriller Rules for Perfect Murders as an homage to Golden Age crime fiction authors like Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith, and contemporary bestsellers such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. For those readers familiar with the books on Mal’s list, it’s a welcome tribute, but for those who haven’t, there are some necessary spoilers.

Like all good psychological thrillers, Rules for Perfect Murders hinges on its intriguing narrator. And like all good narrators, Mal is an unreliable one. He even deliberately acknowledges this trend, questioning how the sudden popularity of unreliable narrators makes it seem as though “the omission of facts from a narrative hadn’t been the bedrock upon which psychological thrillers have been built for over a century”, citing Rebecca as an example well before Gone Girl ever hit the bestseller list.

As Mal throws us random pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, the full picture slowly becomes clearer, with each reveal more shocking that the one before. And as we learn more about Mal, and his deceased wife, Claire, it becomes eerily apparent that all of the characters are somehow connected to the murders. For the savvy readers who like to act as sleuth, there are plenty of opportunities to guess whodunit but the final twist may come as a surprise.

Peter Swanson demonstrates his expert knowledge of suspense thrillers and murder mysteries with a tale of vengeance, guilt and addiction, cleverly balancing some very dark moments with Mal’s mild-mannered narration. Rules for Perfect Murders is a truly fun read (as fun as a book about getting away with murder can be) and just the kind of perfect escapism for your self-isolation, or a great choice for your online book club.

Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson is published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is published under the title Eight Perfect Murders in the US.

Standout Simile:

When (spoiler) first killed Eric Atwell, it was like popping a bottle of champagne. The cork was never going to go back into the bottle.

5 Must-Haves in A Psychological Thriller

The ‘psychological thriller’ isn’t a new genre, but it has seen an increase in popularity in the last decade or so. You know the books I’m talking about — the covers have large lettering, the titles usually include words like ‘Lies’ and ‘Secrets’, and the stories often involve female protagonists.

I recently penned a blog post about how I’ve decided to rewrite my cosy mystery novel as a psychological thriller. For inspiration, I’ve binge-read all of Ruth Ware‘s books. Ruth is the bestselling author of five psychological thrillers (In A Dark Dark Wood, The Lying Game, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Death of Mrs Westaway, and The Turn of the Key). Using her novels as examples (spoiler-free), I’ve come up with a list of 5 must-have elements in a psychological thriller.

1 – An ominous prologue.

These prologues set the tone for the rest of the novel and raise questions in the reader’s mind. They might be a scene from the long-ago past, or a taste of things to come. In Ruth Ware’s first novel, In A Dark Dark Wood, the main character wakes up in a hospital bed, unable to remember anything. How did she get there and why is she so badly injured? The story then returns to a time before the events of the prologue. The Lying Game opens with a a body part washing up on the beach. Using a prologue can be contentious, with several judges of novel competitions saying to leave them out. But perhaps Ruth Ware’s success suggests otherwise?

2 – An unreliable narrator.

It’s an unsettling experience reading a book where you aren’t certain you can believe the main character. They might be lying (e.g. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn) or they might have some kind of personal issue, such as a drinking dependency that triggers memory loss (e.g. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). Ruth Ware has used this device to great effect in The Woman in Cabin 10, where the main character, Lo Blacklock, is certain she’s witnessed a murder. Only problem is that she’s a heavy drinker and no one believes her. In The Turn of the Key, the narrator tells the story through a long letter to a lawyer and it soon becomes apparent she’s omitted some major details about her life.

3 – An isolated setting.

There are several classic thriller novels that are famous for their use of isolated settings (e.g. The Shining by Stephen King). These stories play on the fear of being alone when there’s no one to call for help. All of Ruth Ware’s books use setting to create tension. For example, in The Turn of the Key, the main character is a nanny to three young children in a remote Scottish house. If she called the police, it would be a very long time before they arrived. The Woman in Cabin 10 is set on an elite cruise ship in the middle of the ocean with no phone reception. Add a murderer to the mix and you can be certain things won’t end well.

4 – A dead body.

Amidst all the shady behaviour and spooky settings, there’s gotta be a dead body somewhere, right? All of Ruth Ware’s novels involve a murder mystery. Halfway through In A Dark Dark Wood, someone gets shot at a hen party. The Lying Game opens with the discovery of a body part, and in The Death of Mrs Westaway, there‚Äôs a long-lost missing sister — so we can be sure that whatever has happened to her, it isn’t good. In The Turn of the Key, the main character is on trial for the murder of a child, but we don’t find out what really happened until the very end.

5 – A dramatic climax scene.

All suspense novels, not just psychological thrillers, should build towards some kind of showdown between the main character and the antagonist. These scenes have high stakes — think life or death situations. For example, in The Lying Game, the main character and her baby are trapped in a burning house that begins to fall down around them. In The Death of Mrs Westaway, the main character confronts the murderer on a frozen lake.

There are lots of different elements that go into making a thriller/suspense book a real page-turner for the reader. If you read several books by the same author you may notice they follow a specific pattern or formula. Do you have a favourite psychological thriller author? What tropes, techniques or plot devices do they use to amp up the suspense? I’ve finished binge-reading Ruth Ware: who should I binge-read next? Let me know in the comments below.

In the meantime, check out Ruth Ware’s novels — published in Australia by Penguin.

Mystery of the Month – Where the Truth Lies

Dedicated journalist Chrissie O’Brian thinks she’s onto a big story investigating a number of mysterious workplace accidents at the Melbourne Docklands. But her stories keep getting slashed and instead she’s assigned to a profile piece on solo female crane driver, Masina. Things take a sinister turn when Masina tells Chrissie she’s in danger, and then is found dead the next day – another ‘accident’. As Chrissie digs deeper, yet another worker is killed and a bloodied parcel turns up at her desk. She realises she’s onto something – and she has to get to the truth before it gets to her.

Karina Kilmore’s debut novel Where the Truth Lies is crime fiction at its finest with an intriguing mystery at its core – are these really workplace accidents or are they murders? The plot is complicated by an ongoing dispute between the unions and the wharves, missing cargo, dodgy crane records and financial trouble. Could the unions be staging accidents? Or are the wharves involved in large scale fraud?

Main characters in crime fiction typically have a dark past (that’s what makes them so interesting) and Chrissie is no different. She lives alone, self-medicating with alcohol and painkillers, trying to dull the pain from a past trauma, throwing herself into her work and taking comfort in neighbourhood stray cat, Skinny. The successful career she forged in New Zealand hasn’t translated to Australia; her senior position at The Argus newspaper was given to her as a favour and her news director resents her. But Chrissie’s backstory, involving the tragic loss of her husband and her downward spiral into self-blame and depression, is so heart-breaking that the reader cannot help but feel empathy for her and root for her to succeed.

Like Chrissie, Karina Kilmore is a New Zealand native who lives in Melbourne. An experienced journalist, Kilmore uses her knowledge to great advantage with vivid depictions of the newsroom, crammed with desks and people, and buzzing with noise from televisions, radios and phones. She brings the wharves to life with descriptions of the patchwork of coloured corrugated containers and picketers spinning their clicker rattles high in the air, chanting about safety.

The plot ticks along at a fast pace, the suspense increasing as the story speeds towards a revealing conclusion. Chrissie is hit with several gut-wrenching setbacks – just when she seems to be making headway, she’s forced backwards again. But like all compelling protagonists, she ploughs on, undeterred. Karina Kilmore’s confident writing style and talent for telling a great story, teamed with her flawed but extremely likeable main character, makes it easy to see why this novel was shortlisted for the Unpublished Manuscript Award at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2017. Like Chrissie, you’ll be racing to the end to find out who, if anyone, is telling the truth.

Where the Truth Lies by Karina Kilmore is published by Simon & Schuster.

Standout Simile:

She could deal with the visions, the flashbacks, but her other senses remained raw, like bear traps they would jump out of nowhere, crush her throat and screech in her ears.