Sunday, July 8, 2018


LAST TIME I LIED by Riley Sager (Ebury, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

She says she's innocent. But everyone lies...

It was Emma’s first summer away from home. She made friends. She played games. She learned how to lie. But then three of her friends went into the woods and never returned…

Now, fifteen years later, Emma has been asked to go back to the newly re-opened Camp Nightingale. She likes to think she’s laying old ghosts to rest but really she’s returning to the scene of a crime… 

Fifteen years ago, nervous thirteen-year-old Emma Davis went to summer camp for the very first time. It would be her last time. It was a summer she’d never forget, as she was plunked in a cabin alongside three older girls: Vivian, Natalie, and Allison. Three girls who alternately teased and befriended her.

Three girls who vanished one night, never to return.

Now Emma is a young artist-on-the-rise in New York City, her motif large canvasses full of tangled branches and dark leaves. Evocative and creepy  imagery that viewers find hypnotic.

Few know that beneath the layers of painted forest, three figures lie. Over and over Emma paints the missing girls, only to obliterate them from her sight. She’s been unable to paint anything else. Is her creativity blocked? Or is the mysterious disappearance the only artistic inspiration she'll ever haver?

When the wealthy owner of Camp Nightingale, Francesca Harris-White, buys one of Emma’s pieces then asks for a meeting, Emma's shocked by an offer: the camp is being reopened for the first time since that fateful summer, and ‘Franny’ wants Emma to return as a painting instructor. It would be healing for everyone, she implores. Emma is reluctant, especially as it was her adolescent accusations against Franny’s son that made an awful situation even more painful. But she goes.

Is she looking for closure, or atonement, or justice? Or some mix of them all.

Sager keeps the tension high as the narrative switches between past and present, revealing more of the truths and lies told by all involved. Emma is an engaging narrator of questionable reliability. How much can we trust her, how much can she trust herself? There's a lot hidden and unsaid.

The writing is pretty unobtrusive, flowing along in an easy-reading, page-turning style.

While there's something noticeably architectural about the book, and the occasional dropped note, overall Sager delivers a troubled and interesting narrator, a really good sense of the American summer camp setting, and a creepy thriller that is easy to get sucked into.

This is a ‘just one more chapter’ kind of tale that could have you up all night.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

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