Harry Ackerson, the only child of Bill Ackerson, rushes home from college one fateful afternoon to the small coastal town in Maine where he grew up – to find himself an orphan. His father has plunged to his death on the path of his favourite cliffside walk, leaving Harry with no existing close family – save for his stepmother, Alice, Bill’s much younger wife.
“Harry thought of that conversation now, thought of how the deaths of both of his parents had erased a whole portion of his own life that existed solely as their memories. He was half gone, already, more than half gone. “
It isn’t long before detectives are knocking at the door of the Grey Lady, Alice and Bill’s home. They have reason to believe a third party may have been involved in Bill’s death, having found evidence of blunt trauma to the head. Bill, a quiet, unassuming book collector, isn’t the type to have a catalogue of enemies, so the local police aren’t quite sure where to start.
It is alongside this narrative that we have flashbacks into the ‘then’ of the past, insights into Alice’s small-town childhood and her relationship with her unstable, alcoholic mother. It is then that we start to see her dark side, the way she tangles herself up in acts of immorality whilst seemingly distancing herself, mentally, from any wrongdoing.
It is Alice – her past and present – who is at the heart of this twisted and disturbing tale. But even then, we hardly know her. There is a certain depth lacking in this offering from Peter Swanson, who so thoroughly impressed me with The Kind Worth Killing. There are also parts of this book – the predatory sexual practices of adults towards teenagers – that are deeply disturbing, but it is a theme that becomes so commonplace that it is the twisted thread that binds together the narratives.
While intensely readable, something was missing for me in All the Beautiful Lies. I am a fan of the slow-burner and I don’t need to be constantly contending with twists on every page to enjoy a thriller, but this lacked the substance I was hoping for. Nevertheless, the ending – a dark and twisted denouement – was a fitting, satisfying conclusion.