Wow. I really shouldn’t have worried about the sequel to the riotously entertaining and welcoming mystery thriller that was One Of Us Is Lying. With this, Karen M. McManus has made herself official as one of my favourite authors. Maybe I should stand by that statement only after reading one more of her books. There’s not much that’s more painful than being disappointed by someone you call a favourite. But I had so much fun with this book, on the same level as the high bar raised by the first one, that I don’t see any reason to play it safe.
So, last year, Cooper Clay, Addy Prentiss, Bronwyn Rojas, Nate Macauley and Simon Kelleher were put in detention for phones going off in class that they claim weren’t theirs, and Simon ended up dying from a booby-trapped sink he went to when he was thirsty. The murderer (and accomplice to the murderer) were both found, and all four of the prime suspects were able to move on with their lives. Bronwyn is now in a prestigious university trying to maintain a rough on-again off-again long distance relationship with Nate, Nate is taking community college courses and odd jobs to make a name for himself, with complete certainty he and Bronwyn will never give up on each other, Cooper is in the college level of a very big baseball league, making him a local superstar despite jeers and discrimination due to his sexuality, and Addy now works at Cafe Contingo, deciding to go right into work and see what comes out of it. But this isn’t their story. Bayview High’s still where it’s all at.
We have three new heroes to follow, one of which we’re familiar with already; Maeve Rojas, Bronwyn’s younger sister, an introverted computer genius who used her skills to help the Bayview Four solve the first mystery. Her older sister may have gone through quite the trauma before, but Maeve’s spent most of her life that way. She’s had lymphoma, and for a long time she didn’t think she was actually going to get through high school, not having faith in the chemotherapy. Especially when she begins feeling signs of it returning. Then there’s Phoebe Lawton, a girl who has a shameful little past with some power-hungry boys and has never recovered from the sudden death of her father. Lastly we have Knox Myers, Maeve’s ex-boyfriend but remaining close friend, a guy with four older sisters and a rather snooty set of parents, especially his father. Knox doesn’t really believe he has a shot with a girl, and got the lead in an upcoming play only because he was the only boy in the drama club.
The three of them will have to come together on a major scale when everyone in Bayview High gets an unknown text message from some admirer of the late Simon’s abilities to spy on classmates and reveal their secrets, saying he (or she) is going to reach out to various students and say “Truth or Dare?” Whichever they pick, they’ll have to either say or perform what is demanded, or else…well, we’re not sure exactly what. Logically, either the truth would be revealed anyway, or something bad would happen to the ignorer of the message. So not only do we have a new case and new suspects, but who ever said the original four weren’t going to be involved too?
There were three things that made One Of Us Is Lying such a wonderful surprise, in spite of the fact there was some false advertising between the title and cover. 1) It felt like a true high school in the life of middle-class teenagers, who would be going through the usual calamities of education if the big incident hadn’t just turned their lives upside down forever. 2) Everyone in this story feels like the hero of their own journey, and McManus, even with four points of view and various characters for each person’s life, managed to somehow paint every one with incredible layering. It was always cool when a character we hadn’t seen for a while popped up, wondering what was happening with him or her. 3) And this is the big one…It was a mystery that, because of those prior two points, was a welcoming mystery. Because of a believable and relatable atmosphere, and managing to make every character human and troubled, we had a legitimate chance as readers to think and make guesses to the huge story behind all this as we sped through towards the big reveal.
I’m proud to say One Of Us Is Next is the exact same way. Which, since we’re on the subject, also includes the false advertising part. With that kind of cover, you’d think there’d be four points of view when there are three, the points of view maybe being the original Bayview Four since those faceless heads look like the old ones, and with that kind of title, you’d think instead of the Truth or Dare game there’d be a new death that brought Bayview High back to its knees. And there sort of is. I want to avoid spoilers as much as I can so you can marvel at this book like I could. But what the title really means is someone will be forced to next play the Truth or Dare, and after that, someone else will be next. But anyway, that on its own is lazy criticism of the book. What’s more important, if a book has a different angle than I thought it would, is if it pulls off this new angle well, and it does so in spades. The one big flaw I will point out in this book, to just get it out of the way, is Knox ends up losing interest and quitting an activity he is a part of, leading to a lot of stress for the others on the project, especially the leader. And although I can understand interests change and there was other stuff happening, it annoyed me how Knox didn’t eventually at least do the right thing and get it through to the end.
But there’s nothing else really wrong here. All three of these characters have someone other than the weird new blackmailer furious at them for most of the book, and a fair bit of time they feel the whole school is watching and mocking them. And there’s plenty else to keep the story going as we get to know a new group of suspects that react so very strangely, and sometimes strangely normally, to everything exploding around them. The truth or dare game keeps things rolling until it falls right off the cliff, leading to a sense of real danger about this game, like, as Knox’s employer at Until Proven, Sandeep, says, a series of death threats; several death threats from various people to be expected in a line of work claiming police are liars, but a series of the threats from a particular individual can really be grounds for investigation.
I actually ended up guessing who it was, and there are as many twists as a stick turned into a pretzel to keep us in suspense as to what we’ve witnessed and learned ends up actually interconnected. There’s so many things I never saw coming, and yet it made perfect sense. I found out just an hour ago there’s going to be another book in two years. At least I have McManus’ other books to get through until that time. If you’re looking for a contemporary mystery thriller that actually does all three of them the way they should be together, One Of Us Is Lying and One Of Us Is Next are the best you can find.