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Book review: All the Beautiful Lies by Peter Swanson

All the Beautiful Lies by Peter Swanson
All the Beautiful Lies by Peter Swanson
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Lies, lies and even more damned lies… but who is telling them?

When US author Peter Swanson’s debut novel, The Girl With a Clock for a Heart, was published in 2014, it wowed the critics and was nominated for the LA Times book award. Four years later, he has two more widely acclaimed psychological thrillers under his belt, and an army of avid readers.

And now he’s back to take us on another twisting, turning, white-knuckle ride into the deepest and most disturbing recesses of the human mind, a place where evil is hatched and the innocent are always in danger of being dispatched.

This brilliant new whodunit – an ingenious guessing game that melds an Agatha Christie mystery with all the familial menace of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel – has a black soul, and was devilishly designed by the master of the dark arts to bewitch, bother and bewilder us.

Written with Swanson’s trademark insight and finesse, and featuring an intriguing dual narrative, All the Beautiful Lies is – as the title so cleverly suggests – packed full of deceit, double-dealing and mind-bending trickery as a young man tries to unravel the truth behind his father’s suspicious death.

Helping him in his quest – or maybe leading him up blind alleys – is his young stepmother, a woman whose complex, damaged past is mired in secrecy and whose motives are more misted than an autumn morning.

Less than a week away from his college graduation, Harry Ackerson is called back to his home in Kennewick Village, Maine, by his stepmother Alice following the unexpected death of his father, Bill, who owned a book shop in the town.

Harry has kept away from home as much as possible during his college years, mainly because of his disconcerting attraction to Alice, a beautiful but ‘otherworldly’ woman who is 13 years older than him and 13 years younger than his father.

Alice has always been kind and attentive, if a little aloof in the last few years, but she still has the power to put Harry in a state of ‘constant, confused sexual turmoil’ and he finds himself guiltily obsessing over her.

When the police say that they now believe Bill’s fall from his favourite cliff path was suspicious, Harry is determined to get to the truth of his father’s death… with the help of Alice, the ‘grieving widow’ who somehow seems able to sing along cheerfully to music when she thinks nobody is looking.

And then a mysterious young woman called Grace McGowan turns up, claiming to be new to the area but who, Harry begins to suspect, may not be a complete stranger to his family. Meanwhile, Alice is deliberately working her sexual charms on him and, mesmerised by these two attractive women, he finds himself falling deeper under their spell.

But the closer he gets to them, the more isolated Harry feels, disorientated by a growing fear that both women are hiding dangerous – and even deadly – secrets, and that neither one is telling the truth...

A flawless writer, Swanson plays a blinder in this character-driven thriller which simmers slowly and exquisitely through the first half, fires up under the heat of some blistering revelations, and then explodes spectacularly into a tense, nail-biting dénouement.

The brilliant dual narrative between naïve, inexperienced Harry and the worldly, enigmatic Alice is an inspired literary device, ratcheting up the suspense and allowing readers to explore the truths and lies of both people and events through the prism of Alice’s past and Harry’s present.

Throw in some clever red herrings which will keep you guessing to the last page, a fascinating list of possible suspects, a story that encompasses lust, greed, betrayal, hatred, love and murder, and you have a writer at the top of his game.

(Faber & Faber, hardback, £12.99)