One Of Us Is Lying | Stand-Alone | ISBN 9781524714680 | Delacorte Press, 2017 | 3.5 out of 5 Points
“Pay close attention and you might solve this. On Monday afternoon, five students at Bayview High walk into detention. Bronwyn, the brain, is Yale-bound and never breaks a rule. Addy, the beauty, is the picture-perfect homecoming princess. Nate, the criminal, is already on probation for dealing. Cooper, the athlete, is the all-star baseball pitcher. And Simon, the outcast, is the creator of Bayview High’s notorious gossip app.
Only, Simon never makes it out of that classroom. Before the end of detention, Simon’s dead. And according to investigators, his death wasn’t an accident. On Monday, he died. But on Tuesday, he’d planned to post juicy reveals about all four of his high-profile classmates, which makes all four of them suspects in his murder. Or are they the perfect patsies for a killer who’s still on the loose? Everyone has secrets, right? What really matters is how far you would go to protect them.”
„One Of Us Is Lying“ was my most anticipated book of 2017 so of course I was bringing a lot of preconceived notions to it. That might be the reason why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would in the end. It’s been described as a cross between “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Breakfast Club” online, which combines two things I like quite a lot, so I was sure I’d love this book. But, well. I didn’t love it. I thought it was okay. The thing is, “One Of Us Is Lying” is quite an addictive read. I couldn’t put it down for long and I finished it in record time. But it’s like those TV shows you binge and once you’re done you feel a bit empty and don’t really remember what the fuss was about. It’s okay but in the end it feels a bit meh. I have a feeling my review is going to be the lengthy written equivalent of the shrug emoji so let’s see where this goes, kay?
THE MURDER CLUB
I liked the set-up a lot. Five teenagers are placed in detention together but they don’t really know why they’re there: Brainy Bronwyn, jock Cooper, popular girl Addy, teenage drug seller Nate and school gossip Simon. McManus hands you a lot of high school movie clichés and she has Simon point it out right away. There’s an omnipresent self-awareness at work here. McManus introduces these clichés and goes all out on them and then she slowly starts to deconstruct them. Her characters are “One Of Us Is Lying”’s biggest strength. Their secrets and insecurities add depth to them, fleshing out the stereotypes she’s started with and forming them into interesting people you care about. I liked all of them by the end and I wanted all of them to end up happy. It’s a bit of a lesson in not judging people by their appearances and taking the time to get to know them and I thought it was very well done.
But the actual mystery is lacklustre. This is a Young Adult thriller so that’s a fatal blow. It starts out quite interesting: Simon Kelleher, who runs the school’s favourite gossip blog (like Gossip Girl, only a lot meaner) chokes to death on the floor of the classroom, leaving his four classmates in shock – and persons of interest in his murder case. Someone slipped peanut oil into his drink which triggered the fatal allergic reaction. Shortly afterwards disturbing Tumblr posts start to appear. Someone’s bragging about having killed Simon and the way they did it without leaving a trace. I thought this book would be awesome at that point. True, the whole murder by peanut oil thing is somewhat ridiculous, but those twisted Tumblr posts made up for it. This killer was taunting our four protagonists, trying to frame them for something they did. Awesome, right? Well…
The mystery goes downhill from there. Big time. It actually reads a bit half-arsed, like McManus didn’t put nearly enough work into how it would be solved. It seems like the author was so busy with creating these awesome characters, all the rumours flying around their high school and their family lives and friendships, that she forgot to plot out a convincing mystery and investigation. The thing is, a half-baked mystery kills every thriller, no matter how good the rest of the story is and that’s what happens here.
The characters are passive for most of the story, being pushed around and accused by the police, but they never do anything about it. Instead they come by information by accident and once they’ve collected that information, they interpret it and they’re always right. Their conclusions are often far-fetched and it’s hard to follow their train of thought, making it impossible to figure anything out on your own, which is half the fun of reading mysteries. The blurb says “Pay close attention and you might solve this” but there’s no way. The book decides when you get answers and it decides what you make of those answers. It doesn’t let you doubt the characters’ conclusions because they’re always right anyway and it doesn’t let you take wild guesses on who the killer could be, it tells you what to think at any given point. Meh again.
Look, a good Thriller is a mix of deducing, sleuthing and spine chilling action. There’s a lot of unrealistic deducing in “One Of Us Is Lying” alright but it’s missing the sleuthing and the spine chilling action. I wanted Maeve to do some more hacking or for the kids to get active and look for clues in dangerous places, but all we get is a lot of meeting in secret and talking. It was interesting but it wasn’t thrilling. At all. Since this book clearly wants to be like “Pretty Little Liars”, let me use the TV show as an example here: The show is the most fun when the Liars nearly get caught sleuthing or risk their lives to find out more information. Like breaking into offices and houses, luring the killer somewhere to trick them, fleeing through the woods when stuff goes wrong… that’s the thriller part and that’s what I sorely missed about “One Of Us Is Lying”. The characters just don’t do anything to clear their names. They’re basically just waiting for information to come to them and then they talk about that information. A lot.
“One Of Us Is Lying” started out quite good: The danger the kids were in felt real and tangible, the mystery itself was a bit ridiculous but interesting enough to keep me invested. But, without saying too much, the whole thing leads to a deeply dissatisfying resolution, that left me disappointed and a bit grumpy because it was a total cop-out and left too many questions unanswered. The big finale is rushed and too many storylines are left unresolved, making “One Of Us Is Lying” a pretty mediocre mystery thriller, but quite a good contemporary drama: It focuses on the individual problems of the four teenagers a lot and I liked that part very much. McManus seems to have a knack for characters. Her portrayal of what the murder investigation does to the four kids was vivid and interesting. Reading about how it breaks apart friendships and puts a strain on their families was probably my favourite part of the book. I wanted to know what secrets people were keeping and who they really were. McManus created the kind of suspense there I would have wished she’d added to the actual mystery too.
PRETTY LITTLE TV STARS
One of my biggest problems with “One Of Us Is Lying” however was the portrayal of police work and media coverage of murder cases. It was very unbelievable and far-fetched. The police are once again portrayed as completely incompetent in this book. They make the four kids persons of interest just because they happened to be there when Simon died without looking into major clues like the fake phones planted in all the kids’ bags. They also try to push these minors to confessing to Simon’s murder because they’re sure the kids did it – without any proof by the way. So of course these trained professionals need a band of teenagers to solve the case for them. I did like the sense of danger that having the police oppose the kids created but I don’t like how hopelessly incompetent the police were portrayed. It’s just unrealistic and hard to believe.
Same goes for the media coverage of Simon’s murder case. For some reason Simon’s murder sparks the interest of local and nationwide newspapers and soon the case ends up on a nationwide broadcasted true crime show. Suddenly everyone knows who Cooper, Bronwyn, Addy and Nate are, people and journalists follow them in the street and they have Facebook fan pages. Um, no. I don’t think so. I think McManus wanted to criticise modern day sensationalism and the normalisation of violence and murder here but it doesn’t work because Simon’s murder is so uneventful, for lack of a better work. What makes people interested in true crime are moral corruption, human abysses and gore. Take the Meredith Kercher case for instance. In fact it’s the only case I can think of right now that sparked the kind of interest the case in the book did. It did so because it was scary and brutal and mysterious, because in the centre of it was something very dark and twisted.
People are fascinated by that kind of thing: Young people murdering other young people in cold blood, twisted minds, secrets and all the dark stuff that goes along with it. But Simon’s case has none of the attributes necessary to guarantee the kind of media attention it gets which made the whole “We’re on TV and everyone thinks we’re killers” thing very unbelievable. Especially since these kids aren’t even suspects. They’re persons of interest which leads me to the question why the hell their names even got out that fast. I think McManus did want to criticise sensationalism here and a society that makes murder suspects into reality TV stars and I love that idea but it didn’t work for me because she kind of missed the point why certain murder cases get this kind of attention so the whole thing falls flat.
I have to say, I wasn’t impressed by the writing either. McManus uses four first person narrators but all their voices sound the same. I had a hard time telling them apart actually. One time I was reading one of Cooper’s chapters thinking it was Addy the whole time until he was called by his name. This happened quite often and it forced me to take a minute to replay the chapter in my head so I could get right what had just happened to whom. I think when you’re using more than one first person narrator you need to give them unique voices that are easily distinguishable. Like, give them different speech patterns and vocabularies or quirks. Cooper was Southern for instance and whilst McManus did type out his accent whenever he got agitated, she could’ve had his Mississippi upbringing reflect in the way his voice reads. But when good girl Bronwyn’s voice reads exactly like drug dealer Nate’s, you’ve got a problem.
These two were a problem for me anyway, Bronwyn and Nate. I was sure they’d have a romance right from the beginning and I was right. For a book that’s so self-aware of its use of stereotypes and the deconstruction of them, their romance was weirdly tropey and clichéd in its own right. It’s your usual good girl falls in love with bad boy story and in the end it’s Bronwyn’s love that makes Nate want to fight and turn his life around. Blergh. Can we retire the “good woman’s love makes bad guy repent” trope already? This romance took up more pagetime than I thought fit too. I wanted to know a lot more about Addy’s toxic relationship with Jake, who controls her every move and led her to believe she can’t live without him. Addy’s character development was one of the book’s major highlights for me and I was sad to see it kind of fade into the background in favour of Bronwyn and Nate’s cookie-cutter-romance in the second half of the book.
Another thing that left me quite stumped and salty was the representation of LGBTQ teens in this book. Not every representation is good representation and I appreciate that McManus tried but it’s kind of a mess. See, I can’t even tell you who is LGBTQ in this book because that would be a huge spoiler which is not a good sign. McManus basically uses a character’s queerness as a big shocking revelation around the 60% mark and I hate when authors do that. I mean, you can either write good representation queer kids can relate to or you can use queerness as this cheap thrill plot twist like McManus did. I understand why the character in question had to hide their sexuality from their parents and friends but there’s no excuse for McManus hiding it from the reader for half the book only to use it as a *gasp* plot twist. This clearly isn’t representation for LGBTQ readers, it’s meant to shock you like all the other secrets (drug selling, cheating on your partner etc.) and even though I don’t think McManus intended it to be painted this negatively, that’s still how it comes across. More under the spoiler. Be careful with that!
The take-away lesson here is that not all representation is good representation. Using someone’s sexuality as a plot twist is not good representation. Only disclosing someone’s sexuality (that the character has known about forever) after more than half the book is already over is not good representation. It’s using queer kids as a plot device and taking their representation away in favour of a cheap shock moment. Since we’re heavy on the “Pretty Little Liars” comparisons today, I’ll just go ahead and say that Emily from the TV show (not Emily from the books though, let’s forget the books exist) is the kind of LGBTQ representation I want to see more of in YA. Her sexuality is clear from almost the beginning, she gets to have normal and happy relationships with girls and even though she faces the kind of problems many queer kids face, she always comes out stronger in the end. Give me more Emilys and less queer teens whose sexuality is used as a cheap plot twist please. And do it soon, kay?
All in all “One Of Us Is Lying” is a good contemporary drama but a sub par mystery thriller. If you’ve read or watched “Gossip Girl” and want something similar, this book might be for you. But if you’ve watched “Pretty Little Liars” and loved the spine chilling action and mystery, “One Of Us Is Lying” won’t deliver. It’s mostly well-written and has likable, interesting characters and I adore its self-awareness but there was way too much that bothered me here to give it a five or four point rating, like the lacklustre mystery, the way queerness was treated in this novel and most of all the disappointing ending. I’m giving it 3 and a half points. It’s a good book, it’s just not that exceptional. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
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