Review: One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

One of Us Is LyingA quintet of stereotypes from a John Hughes movie walk into detention one fateful Monday afternoon, but only four make it out alive.

Each of the survivors — the athlete, the cheerleader, the academic, and the drug dealer — had good reason to want to see the victim silenced. Simon Kelleher runs Bayview High’s infamous gossip blog app and his next post contained juicy details that could cause grief and heartache to each of the survivors. But was that post enough of a motive to kill Simon? And if it was, which one of these four is guilty of the crime?

The central mystery of who killed Simon and why drives Karen M. McManus’ debut novel One of Us Is Lying. And the story starts with teenage stereotypes, each of the characters doesn’t remain a stereotype for long. One of the highlights of the story is watching McManus build each of the characters through shifting point of view segments while both validating and challenging our initial assumption of each character. Whether it’s the academic, Bronwyn who was presented with a chance to keep her collegiate dreams of going to Yale alive or Jake, the drug dealer who is trying to overcome his family’s dysfunctional history, McManus’ narrative weaves the lives of the so-called Murder Club into something more than just your standard murder mystery.

The two highlights of the novel are Cooper, the star pitcher who is accused of steroid abuse but hides a larger secret and Addy, the cheerleader with the seemingly perfect boyfriend. McManus hits all the right notes with these two characters (especially Addy) and even resists the temptation to give them complete “happily ever after” endings when the novel comes to a close.

It’s a shame really that she doesn’t resist that temptation with Bronywn and Jake. A tacked-on epilogue allows us to see what becomes of each character after the central mystery is solved, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit unsatisfied by where McManus takes Bronwyn and Jake in the stories closing moments. But I get the feeling that many in McManus’ target audience will swoon at where she leaves these two when the final page is turned.

And while the mystery of who killed Simon and why serves as a driving focus for the narrative, it also serves as the biggest frustration with the narrative. In typical Scooby Doo fashion, the police are completely incompetent, focusing solely on the four characters at the heart of this story and not entertaining any other potential suspects or lines of investigation for much of the novel. Perhaps this is intended to help us get inside the heads of Bronywn, Jake, Addy, and Cooper as they face allegations of murder. But when the four band together to begin trying to solve the crime themselves, I couldn’t help but feel like it was a bit out of the ending of an episode of Scooby Doo and that the murderer’s entire plan would have gone off without a hitch if “not for you darn kids.”

It was these two things that really took me out of the story and keeps One of Us Is Lying from being a completely satisfying experience.

Now, onto the SPOILER-filled part of the review. Stop reading if you don’t want to know or haven’t read it yet but plan to do so.

So, turns out that Simon offed himself because he had an axe to grind with each person in this group. Bronwyn’s cheating means he won’t be valeditorian, Cooper gets him uninvited from the after-prom party, etc. So he decides to truly make a statement by offing himself with peanut oil and then framing these four for the murder. He enlists the aid of two friends to help him, with instructions that they not reveal the true culprit and reason to the police until the four involved hav suffered for a year and had their lives ruined. This includes framing one of them for murder and making them take the fall by planting evidence.

OK, so as far as motives go, that’s pretty damn mean and cruel. And I get that teenagers can be cruel, mean people to each other. And while I’m glad to see a novel that has the outsider with a grude plot angle done differently, there are still a few things I don’t quite buy.

One is how can Simon assume that this cosnpirators will go along with this or won’t change their minds. (It sort of proves to be his undoing).

The second is how exactly does Simon get away with running the gossip blog for so long without some kind of authority figure intervening. Given that Simon ruins the lives of people, has targets and is so mean-spirited about the posts, it’s not hard to see why his peers shun him or want little to do with him. But it also makes me wonder where are the adults in all of this? Surely some adult must know about this and surely steps would be taken before Simon gets to the point he does here and uses his power to frame the four for murder. What Simon does is bullying, pure and simple. And yet no one in authority seems to do anything to try and help Simon and shut down the site. This either makes me very afraid for teens as they grow up today or else it reinforces the “adults are idiots” vibe that I got for much of the novel, especially when it came to the police and their investigation.

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