Release date: June 2, 2020
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ (8/10)
SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: They Did Bad Things is a mystery/thriller that was written by Lauren Forry and published by Arcade CrimeWise on June 2nd, 2020. (The release I’m reviewing is the market first edition, but was bound together specifically for the Nowhere Bookshop for release a few weeks early.) Forry won prizes for her debut novel, Abigale Hall, which was also an atmospheric and gothic tale; she teaches English at Harcum College and “never murdered anyone in college,” according to her book biography (a funny shout-out to this book). The tagline for this novel reads, “And Then There Were None meets The Last Time I Lied in this dark and twisty psychological thriller.”
PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: In 1995, on the outskirts of London, six college students who’d never met before move into a rundown, decrepit old house at 215 Caldwell Street. The school year looms ahead, bright with promise yet intimidating, and – like most college students – they’re ready to spend the next year balancing a healthy schedule of studying and partying. There’s three women – a daddy’s girl, a studious feminist, and an insecure romantic – and three men: one gregarious and obsessed with parties, one a shy but overly thoughtful poet, and one a reserved and observant detective-in-the-making.
But when you combine six very different personalities under one roof, and throw in a healthy dose of deception and desire, you have a powder keg waiting to combust. When the year is over, only five of them will emerge from the house…and they will have a deep, dark secret that only they will share, about what truly happened on the night their sixth roommate died.
I enjoyed this atmospheric and creepy thriller, and after I was about a third of the way through, I couldn’t put it down.”
Twenty years later, the five survivors are all lured by various irresistible invitations – tailored to their own specific personalities and deepest desires – to the old and dusty Wolfheather House. This mansion is located on a secluded island in Scotland, and is similar to the house they left behind on Caldwell Street all those years ago in its crumbling structure and ongoing renovations. Each roommate is shocked to see the others, and even more surprised when notes and “gifts” start arriving…with twisted nods to what happened to their long-dead roommate.
Soon, there will be a violent, bloody murder…and then another…and the survivors will have to work together to figure out the truth about what is happening now. Can they right their wrongs from 20 years earlier, and band together to beat the person determined to punish them for their terrible silence? Or will they all pay the ultimate price for the part they played in their roommate’s death?
MY THOUGHTS: This was my first novel by Forry, but I’m definitely interested in reading Abigale Hall now; gothic thrillers are a particular favorite of mine. The events of They Did Bad Things take place in two parallel timelines: in 1995, when six new college roommates move into a decrepit house on Caldwell Street, and in the present time, when they’re mysteriously and unexpectedly reunited at an isolated and creepy Inn on the Scottish Isle of Doon.
One of the blurbs on the front of the novel reads, in part, “As ingenious as Knives Out, as twisted as Gone Girl” – and I would somewhat agree with this assessment. As a veteran thriller reader, I wouldn’t compare it to Gone Girl, because we generally always expect a good twist or two in 2020. The genre is pretty much completely dependent on it in this day and age, so it’s hard to say a novel has an ending (or a middle, a la Gone Girl?) that’s as shocking as what Gillian Flynn wrote. Forris does have a couple of twists in store for us – one of which I predicted about 33% of the way through (of course), and which became more obvious with all of the little clues that are thrown in here and there if you pay close attention. The other twist, however, I think would be very hard to see coming. (Feel free to prove me wrong!)
I would personally compare the plot of the novel to Agathe Christie (especially And Then There Were None, in agreement with the publisher’s tagline), or to a Hitchcock movie. (Hitchcock is actually referenced in this novel more than once.) This is a favorite theme/trope for many mystery novels: you start with a certain number of people who either share a terrible secret, or who all have terrible things to hide. Next you put them in a location that’s inherently creepy in its isolation and its unfamiliarity to the characters – in this case, in a reunion they’re not expecting. Add in a doomsday clock, ticking downward as each of them meets a mysterious but fatal fate, and a healthy dose of “whodunit,” and you have yourself a vintage-feeling mystery.
And to be fair, there are truly two mysteries to solve here: who was actually responsible for Callum’s death in 1995 (not a spoiler), and who’s committing the murders 20 years later. We know that none of the residents told the police the truth: that Callum’s death was a murder, and not an accident. But what we DON’T know is who delivered the fatal blow – or why. The notes they receive at Wolfheather House say the reason they’ve all been brought back together is to flush out the original killer, and make him or her confess…but is it? Or is the person who drew blood in 1995 back to destroy the only other people who know what happened?
The book goes back and forth between a partial diary of the person committing the murders, and the “real-time” events occuring in the mansion. The diary was left as a confession to the police, detailing the history of the roommates’ time in the mansion; it chronicles their year at the house, from move-in day to the day they got away with murder. As I read it, I was puzzled as to how the present-day murderer would be able to detail each roommate’s thoughts and private movements throughout their time in the house on Caldwell, 20 years later. Forry provides an explanation as to how the writer pieced together all of the information at the end of the book; there were years of covert research and interviews, and the writer states that the others’ thoughts and motives might not be 100% correct all of the time – but he/she insists that the facts are dead right. I can accept this explanation, and I understand that it was done to give us a good idea of why each person acted the way they did and what their motives were…but as a stickler for detail, it does bother me slightly, since each entry is written from that specific roommate’s point of view.
Overall, I enjoyed this atmospheric and creepy thriller, and after I was about a third of the way through, I couldn’t put it down. I am a sucker for a classic “one-by-one” secluded murder-mansion mystery in all its forms, and even though I partially knew who was behind the present day events, it was gratifying to see an ending that I didn’t see coming.