Amy Stuart’s 2016 bestseller, Still Mine, which was nominated for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, began with a complicated premise. A woman arrives in town asking questions about another woman who has recently disappeared. The newcomer, Clare, has her own secrets. On the run from a violent marriage, Clare is assisting Malcolm, the P.I. her husband hired to track her down. The two are working together to locate missing women whose stories are echoes of Clare’s own. Except Clare doesn’t know what she’s doing, doesn’t trust her new boss, and her cover story is fooling none of the people she encounters, all of whom have secrets of their own.
Still Water, a sequel, takes less time to find its narrative feet. Here, Stuart deftly deals with Clare’s backstory in just a few paragraphs. Clare is still unclear what Malcolm is up to, is nervous that her husband is on her trail, and has not yet healed from the gunshot wound she acquired at the end of the first book. But she hopes that she can learn from past mistakes and do better in her new assignment, which is to investigate the disappearance of Sally Proulx, who vanished with her son from a refuge for abused women. Were Sally and her son lost to the rushing river on the property? Or could the truth lie in the troubled history of the family that runs the refuge – three grown children of a woman murdered by her husband years before? Clare goes undercover, posing as Sally’s friend.
Meanwhile, one of the police officers assigned to the case is hiding a connection to Malcolm, who is himself going off the rails. To make matters worse, Clare’s struggle to wean herself off the painkillers she’s been relying on isn’t helping her focus.
Remarkably for such an intricate narrative, Stuart makes it work, weaving all the strands together in service of her plot. Her prose is rich and descriptive, building suspense and creating a moody atmosphere, the impact of which resonates outside the context of her fiction; within the fiction, not only Sally and Clare, but so many others fall victim to a pattern of violence that is all too familiar. (The subtext of Stuart’s novel involves a recognition of just how common this experience is in reality.)
“Why would I lie?” Clare asks at one point. This is not a rhetorical question, because she has many reasons to lie – not least among them to save her life. But Stuart manages to make Clare’s motivations plausible and instills in the reader an empathy for Clare, even if much of her story remains unreliable or just outside the frame.
The truth is equally hard to get at in Catherine McKenzie’s The Good Liar, which takes place one year after an explosion in a Chicago building kills hundreds of people. Protagonist Cecily Grayson’s husband and good friend are among the dead; she is trying to put the pieces of her world back together, while also hiding the fact that her marriage was less than harmonious. A filmmaker working on a documentary about the tragedy is making it hard for Cecily to keep her secret, however. The filmmaker, Teo, also uncovers inconsistencies in the story of Franny, an adoptee who had just reconnected with her birth mother when the latter was killed in the bombing. Then there is Kate, who has used the explosion to escape from her life and start anew as a nanny in Montreal. The details of her story are similarly obscure.
This kind of set-up is familiar terrain for McKenzie, and The Good Liar starts out promisingly. Unfortunately, the narrative quickly becomes overwhelmed by new twists and additional plotlines. Cecily is falling for Teo and being hounded by paparazzi, maybe her husband was cheating on her, and somebody is a murderer. It all becomes too much.
The prose is similarly bogged down: paragraphs are scattered with contrasting conjunctions that turn ideas into tangles. The characters’ motivations are just as imprecise, consisting of unsatisfying generalities: “The truth was that there wasn’t any reason Kate could offer up that could explain her behavior to anyone, even herself.”
This is McKenzie’s ninth book (following bestsellers such as Smoke, Hidden, and Fractured); her loyal followers will have no trouble overlooking the novel’s weaknesses and will simply strap in for the roller-coaster ride of a plot. Others will lament a narrative that runs a little too wild.