OR: Last Time I Lied

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 11th of July last year:-

Last Time I Lied (Ebury Press tpb, 384pp, £8.99) is the second book from American author Riley Sager (I reviewed his first, Final Girls, back in Black Static #63 – and that review can be found here) and it’s out in paperback today according to Amazon.

Emma Davis is sent away to spend the summer at Camp Nightingale, an exclusive summer camp owned and run by the wealthy Francesca Harris-White, but her late arrival means that she is bunked in a cabin with three older girls, Vivian, Natalie, and Allison. Vivian is undoubtedly the queen bee, the others striving to impress her, and Emma taken under her wing, though not free from occasional bouts of resentment. Then one night the three girls go missing, never to be found again, and naturally some suspicion falls on Emma, who redirects it at others.

Fifteen years later, Emma is well-established as an artist, though all her work is inspired by the three never found girls. Franny plans to reopen Camp Nightingale, and Emma is asked to attend as art tutor, which she agrees to, once again finding herself bunking in a cabin with three girls and meeting all the people she knew so many years ago. She determines to solve the mystery of the disappearance, and perhaps absolve herself of the guilt she feels at lies told all those years ago, following a trail that leads back into the past when the lake at the heart of Camp Nightingale was created by Franny’s father submerging the asylum that stood on the ground. Emma feels she is on the verge of discovering something momentous, but at the same time there are signs somebody has taken an interest in her, and others think she was responsible for what happened to Vivian and her friends.

Like Sager’s previous novel, this book takes a familiar trope or two of the horror genre and mixes them up with mystery/thriller elements to telling effect. The Camp Nightingale setting will be a home away from home for genre fans familiar with Camp Crystal Lake and similar killing grounds, while the presence of a drowned asylum in the grounds adds yet another frisson of fear and familiarity to the mix, as do the references to a curse.

Cutting between past and present, Sager adeptly drip feeds us the clues as to what really happened in the past along with enough red herrings to throw the ‘reasons to feel outraged’ demographic into a furore about the injustice of fishing quotas. Emma’s lack of reliability as a witness is something we at first suspect and then see revealed in all its hideous truth, exposing her own culpability for what took place fifteen years previously.

The setting is beautifully realised, with its juxtaposition of the idyllic and pastoral with human evil, and the characters are finely drawn, especially the two sets of girls who share a cabin with Emma, in both the past and the present. Underlying it all is a keen understanding of human psychology, the things that make us act as we do, and the ways in which obsession can undermine our lives, as happens with Emma, the past coming to totally eclipse the present, so that she becomes trapped in a moment, one that shapes and affirms who she is, as both creative artist and human being.

Last Time I Lied is not a great book, either as horror fiction or mystery/thriller; ultimately the familiarity of much of the material undercuts our need for originality, while at times there is about it a feel of plot diversion into the territory of contrivance, though to be fair I can’t put my finger on any concrete example, only have a nagging sense of doubt about some of the events that occur. However, all that aside, it is a splendidly entertaining and engaging hybrid of overlapping genres, one that holds the attention all the way and keeps the reader guessing with its stream of revelations and constant misdirection. Odds are you’re going to have a good time with it.

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