I’m still mentally kicking myself for putting Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood back on the shelf that first time I saw it, because when I did finally get around to reading it, it instantly became one of my favorite books of the year. I also loved Ware’s 2016 release, The Woman in Cabin 10. So of course, I pre-ordered The Lying Game and read it within the first week of receiving it, but this review will be different from those other two, because Ware’s 2017 release is a whole different creature.
About the book: Isa spent one eventful year at Salten House boarding school, in which she made three best friends who played a game of lies. The game alienated them from the rest of the girls in the school and the townfolk in the village, reinforcing their friendship. But there were rules to the game–rules about lying to each other, and knowing when to admit the truth, and those rules have been broken. Now, seventeen years later, a body has surfaced near the Mill where the four girls spent their free time before expulsion from the school, and their lives begin to unravel. Isa hasn’t seen any of her friends in years, but she packs up her infant daughter and travels to Salten immediately when she gets the message. Despite changes that might have driven the four apart over the years, they are still inextricably linked by a lie they’ve been telling since that night at the Mill… a lie that incriminates them all, but will be even more deadly when the truth surfaces.
“We have been lying for almost twenty years, the three of us. But now, at last, we know why. Now, at last, we know the truth.”
The best things about They Lying Game are 1: the atmosphere, and 2: the characters. Ware does a fantastic job drawing unique characters with complicated backgrounds, and on top of that the location feels almost like a character itself. There are dark corners, strange noises, problematic storms, and isolated spaces. The dilapidated Mill house is as much essential to the story as the people who inhabit it. The Reach they all swim in is as much a friend as a threat waiting to pull someone down into its depths. The Lying Game is full of seemingly ordinary details that are twisted just enough to turn dangerous. The main character’s mounting anxiety creates plenty of opportunity for shadows to take on a life of their own. And Ware lets them have it.
“Why didn’t I realize? Why didn’t I realize that a lie can outlast any truth, and that in this place people remember? It is not like London, where the past is written over again and again until nothing is left. Here, nothing is forgotten, and the ghost of my mistake […] will haunt me.”
The downside: this pacing is so slow. The tension is almost all internal worry with very few cues from the outside world to indicate that there really is something amiss. I would classify this as a mystery rather than a thriller, unlike Ware’s previous books. It felt a lot like the shift between Paula Hawkins’ first book, The Girl on the Train, and her new, slower novel, Into the Water. Both sorts of mysteries have their merit, and The Lying Game is still full of psychological intrigue, but I think it’s important to know which variety you’re picking up, because finding a different pacing than you’re expecting can affect your experience of the book.
Let’s also talk about missed opportunities.
First, there’s very little actual danger. The main character, Isa, has a small baby, still breastfeeding, who goes everywhere Isa goes and is never far from her mind. There’s so much focus on the baby that she’s an obvious vulnerable point for Isa. Every time Isa leaves the baby alone with someone new or leaves her sleeping alone in a different room, I thought something would happen with the baby. But on the few instances when there seems like a possibility for the baby to be in danger, the problem is solved before it even becomes a problem. I probably sound like a creep, wishing for something terrible to happen to an infant, but in any sort of murder mystery the main characters’ vulnerable points should be pushed in the narration. A missing baby or a baby held hostage as Isa gets closer to the truth would’ve really ramped up the stakes in this one, but instead baby Freya seems only to be along for the ride, rather purposelessly.
“All at once, I have a strong urge to snatch up my sleeping baby and press her into my breast, hugging her to me as if I can fold her back inside myself, as if I can protect her from this web of secrets and lies that is closing in around me, dragging me back to a decades-old mistake that I thought we’d escaped. I am starting to realize that we didn’t, none of us. We have spent seventeen years running and hiding, in our different ways, but it hasn’t worked, I know that now. Perhaps I always knew.”
Secondly, the Tide Mill is a secluded house, deteriorating on the edge of a body of water. The electricity is faltering and unpredictable, the wooden walkway leading to the house from the shore is completely covered with water in high tides, there is no reliable car on the premises for anyone to make emergency trips into town– instead, the quickest way to civilization is through miles of dangerous marsh. Eventually, the house does become a part of the plot. But none of the details that make it a great spooky setting come into play. When the main character finds herself alone in the house with a potential killer, there’s very little fear because the house is familiar and everyone inside it has been a friend to her. The Lying Game does atmosphere well– but it could have used that atmosphere once its established. Instead, it misses that opportunity.
But at least it’s not too predictable. I had it narrowed down to two choices for the killer, and even though one of them turned out to be correct, the mystery still didn’t end the way I expected.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m disappointed that I didn’t like this book more, because I absolutely loved Ware’s previous two books. It’s not even the fact that it wasn’t really a thriller that disappointed me– I love a good slow mystery as well. It just felt like there was so much unrealized potential in The Lying Game. Nevertheless, I was still drawn in by the writing and the setting, and Ware remains one of my favorite novelists. I will absolutely still be picking up Ware’s next book, whatever it may be.
- Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water also involves a body washing up from the water, although this one really did drown–the question is whether the drowning was intended, and by whom. This one’s also a slower psychological mystery, though the stakes are higher.
- Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go is an excellent mystery/thriller that seems to start slow and then increases quickly. Even that slower-paced beginning turns thrilling when the reader discovers all the secrets perfectly concealed in the first part of the book.
- Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is full of domestic intrigue in a group of friends whose children are involved in a bullying scandal at the local kindergarten. The politics of the parent group, combined with the unsolved mystery of what’s happening in the kids’ class, keeps the reader guessing and ends with a shocking death.
What’s next: I’ve recently finished reading Riley Sager’s Final Girls, a slasher thriller also released in July that’s a lot more pulse-pounding than The Lying Game. This one’s way more than suspenseful– it’s like watching a gory horror film unravel in your mind. Stay tuned for more details.
Have you read any great mysteries lately?
The Literary Elephant