J.T. Ellison’s new thriller, Lie To Me, begins with the image of a body rotting in woods near Franklin, Tennessee. The corpse remains undiscovered for days as the weather and local fauna render it unrecognizable. From that grisly beginning, the plot moves steadily downhill. A disembodied, evil voice, which could be the anonymous villain but sounds equally like an authorial whisper, warns readers that this story is not light entertainment. “I am the shard of glass that slits the skin of your bare foot,” the unnamed narrator says. “I am all the bad things that happen to you.”
Ellison then jumps into the story of a marriage on the brink of horrific failure. Ethan Montclair, a successful literary novelist, begins a summer morning by reading a note from his wife, Sutton, announcing that she is leaving him. “I’m sorry to do this to you, but I need some time away,” the note reads. “Don’t look for me.” Confused into temporary paralysis, Ethan delays in searching for Sutton, a hesitation that her friends and the police begin to suspect indicates foul play.
As the investigation into Sutton’s disappearance intensifies, Ellison reveals that the Montclairs’ marriage is riven by misfortunes that have already pushed Sutton into self-destructive depression and may have turned Ethan into a killer. A further layer of complication arises when police are led to believe, based on the testimony of the Montclairs’ closest friend, that the death of the couple’s infant son a year earlier may not have been a case of SIDS after all. No sooner does the reader begin to get a handle on that mystery than new wrinkles redirect the inquiry in disturbing new directions. You can’t say Ellison hasn’t warned you.
Ellison sustains the narrative tension through jarring reversals, periodically flipping readers’ inductions about fundamental questions of good and evil. Is Ethan a loving husband being cruelly manipulated by an unhinged spouse? Or do his foppish good looks disguise a violent temper? It appears that at least one of the characters in Lie To Me is a highly intelligent psychopath, able to confound detectives and spark doubt in everyone associated with the case. But who is the malefactor, and who the innocent victim?
Lie To Me is a case study in the variety of ways a marriage can fall apart. This novel falls squarely in the category of domestic noir for its intimate depiction of the way conjugal conflict builds from minor disagreements to raging battles. Sutton’s mother is a scheming shrew who doesn’t bother to mask her antipathy toward Ethan, but for some reason Sutton refuses to banish the harridan from their life. Husband and wife struggle to balance their careers, as well. Sutton, also a novelist but in the less distinguished field of historical romance, believes that Ethan doesn’t respect her work. Throw in a trio of nosy friends (whom Ethan dismisses as the “weird sisters” from Macbeth) and the continual frustrations and expense of trying to renovate an old Victorian mansion, and it’s no wonder that one of them reaches a snapping point.
Ethan and Sutton, both portrayed as gifted writers, take turns telling the story. This structure enables Ellison to provide insight, much of it unsavory, into the daily existences of people who make their livings from the fruits of their imaginations. Ethan is blocked from completing his anticipated third novel and suffers public humiliation when the publisher revokes his contract and demands repayment of his million-dollar advance. Sutton makes the mistake of rebuking an online reviewer, a moment of weakness that leads to hundreds of one-star ratings and endless trolls hoping to provoke her again. Worst of all, Ethan gets his best ideas from the lowest points in his marriage, inspired to write by the same calamities that throw his life into chaos. He may or may not be a killer in real life, but in his fiction he is definitely a cannibal.
Ellison, a Nashville resident, sets her novel in Franklin, and local readers will enjoy hunting for references to nearby landmarks (Gentry’s Farm!). They will also find grim references to local problems like traffic and skyrocketing real-estate prices. The deeper satisfactions of Lie To Me consist in Ellison’s portrayal of her characters’ irreducible contradictions: they hate their weaknesses but are powerless to change; they revile in others the traits they can’t expunge from themselves. Through Sutton, the most complex personality, Ellison reveals that, beneath the veneer of having it all, people can hide emotional lives of extraordinary pain.
Sean Kinch grew up in Austin and attended Stanford. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. He now teaches English at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville.