My heart sank as I read the opening sentences of Ruth Ware’s new suspense novel, “The Lying Game.”
“No,” I told myself. “Not a dog on a beach digging up a bone. Please, it can’t be. . .”
Alas, it was.
That dog did indeed dig up a human (!) bone, thus performing one of the stalest tricks in the suspense story playbook. What happens on the novel’s next page is just as cliched: four former school friends-who-share-a-terrible-secret-from-the-past are notified about the discovery and reunite. Things have nowhere to go but up in Ware’s thriller after this double whammy of worn-out conventions. Eventually, they sort of do.
Blame my dismay at the weak opening of “The Lying Game” on the ingenuity of Ware’s previous novel, the best-selling “The Woman in Cabin 10.” That tale took place on a labyrinthine yacht on the high seas and was infused with claustrophobic menace. Were Alfred Hitchcock still around, he surely would have snapped up the rights. Hitch would have more of a challenge, though, making “The Lying Game” into something memorable. This story stays scrupulously within the lines: to the degree it satisfies, it does so because — like a Lifetime movie — its premise, setting and characters are so comfortably broken-in. There’s even a haunted house, a dark and stormy night, a baby in peril and climactic trials by flood and fire.
Our narrator here is Isa Wilde, a new mother living in North London. Shortly after that canine exhumes that bone from the sand, Isa receives an unsigned text in the dead of night that reads simply: “I need you.” Isa instantly knows what the text means and who sent it — even though she and the sender, Kate Atagon, have not seen each other since they were wayward schoolgirls nearly two decades ago at Salten House, a mediocre boarding school near the English Channel. The very next morning, Isa makes up an excuse to her partner, packs her baby daughter, Freya, into her carriage, and boards a train for the village of Salten, where Kate still lives. Later that day, two other long-lost friends also answer the same summons and turn up at Kate’s cottage.
No, cottage is inaccurate. Kate lives in a structure called the Tide Mill — the same place she’s been living ever since her father, a beloved art teacher at Salten House, disappeared. The Tide Mill seems to be a waterlogged version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The House of Usher.” Here’s Isa’s description of her arrival at the place:
“ It’s not a building so much as a collection of driftwood thrown together by the winds, and looking as if it might be torn apart by them at any point. . . . [A] wooden walkway bridg[es] the ten feet of water that separates the mill from the shore. . . . It is narrower than I remember, the slats salt-bleached and rotten in places. . . . I take a deep breath, trying to ignore the images in my head (slats giving way, the pram falling into the salt water) . . . as I bounce the wheels across the treacherous gaps.”
Needless to say, Isa’s fearful fantasies are a textbook example of the literary technique known as foreshadowing.
Once the four women gather at Tide Mill, we learn that, in their school days, the quartet indulged in an amusement called “The Lying Game,” in which they told tall tales to teachers and other students. As it becomes clear that the dread secret the four share has something to do with their long-ago expulsion from Salten House, Kate’s father’s disappearance, and, now, that newly resurfaced bone, Isa begins to suspect that one of her old friends may be playing a more sinister version of their old game.
The plot ambles back and forth between the women’s youth and their anxious present, during which time they must attend a catty reunion dinner at Salten House and figure out who has been blackmailing Kate. Ware’s style here is as routine as her plot. For instance, when faced with an awful revelation, Isa feels “a shiver of cold run from my neck, all the way down my back, prickling at my skin.” In other scenes, like many a thriller heroine before her, words scream inside Isa’s head or she’s surprised by “a longing with a heat so fierce that I thought it might consume me.”
“The Lying Game” rallies in its second half, making a few unforeseen detours off its well-worn narrative road before inevitably returning to that perilous half-submerged footbridge to wrap things up. As long as readers are ready to surrender to the pleasures of the predictable, Ware’s latest thriller is enjoyable enough.
Maureen Corrigan , the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Ruth Ware
Gallery/Scout. 370 pp. $26.99