Anna Bailey’s debut novel is a mature and accomplished story where the people in the book are not just characters but HAVE character. Bailey writes late in the novel, “When one thing smells like gasoline, everything smells like gasoline.” Where the Truth Lies is a poetic page-turner.
The town of Whistling Ridge guards its secrets.
When seventeen-year-old Abigail Blake disappears after a party, her best friend Emma is left with questions no one else can answer. The police initially believe Abi ran away, but Emma doesn’t believe that her friend would leave without her, and when disturbing evidence is discovered nearby, the festering secrets and longstanding resentment of both Abigail’s family and the people of Whistling Ridge begin to surface with devastating consequences.
Among those secrets: Abi’s older brother’s passionate, dangerous love for a handsome Romanian immigrant who has recently made his home in the town’s trailer park; her younger brother’s feeling that he knows information he should tell the police, if only he could put it into words; her father’s mercurial rages and her mother’s silence. Then there is the rest of Whistling Ridge, where a charismatic preacher advocates for God with language that mirrors violence, all under the sway of the powerful businessman who rules the town.
But Abi has secrets of her own, and the closer Emma grows to unraveling them, the further she feels from her friend. And in a tinderbox of small-town rage, all it will take is just one spark—the truth of what really happened that night—to change their community forever in this “intricate and compelling thriller, beautifully nuanced and wonderfully claustrophobic” (S.J. Watson, New York Times bestselling author).
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Read an Excerpt
The roar of the bonfire is hard to distinguish from the sound of the trailer-park boys and the schoolgirls who holler and dance in the shadow of the Tall Bones. It is a small-town sort of night—the last that Whistling Ridge will see for many years to come, although nobody knows this yet—in the kind of town where coyotes chew on stray cigarette butts and packs of boys go howling at the moon.
Abigail Blake turns at the edge of the trees and smiles at Emma. This will be the memory of Abigail that stays with Emma long after the rest has been drunk away: long and pale as a moonbeam, flyaway red hairs curling gently in the damp air, hands buried deep in her sleeves, standing on the balls of her feet, like she might take off running at any moment.
“I’ll be fine,” she says. Her eyes give her away, darting ahead into the forest. They are not long into September, but fall comes quicker in the mountains, and already the early night has stolen over the pines, their opaque shadows broken only by the beam of a single flashlight.
“But how are you going to get home?” There’s a little dent in her brow, Emma thinks, just the right shape and size for the pad of her thumb.
“Em.” It’s as if she has to remember to smile again. “I’ll just call a cab or something. I’ll figure it out. Really, it’s fine.” She looks at the light hovering among the trees and, behind it, the vague shape of a boy. Emma follows her gaze, but it’s too dark to make him out properly.
“I don’t think you should go.”
Abigail’s grin looks so tight it must hurt. “It’s just fun, Em. Don’t worry about it.”
Emma does worry about it. She isn’t tall like Abigail, doesn’t have the same gap between her thighs like all teenage girls want; the only thing her father ever gave her was his Latino complexion, and it has dogged her all the way through school; she isn’t the kind of girl boys ask to go into the woods with them, so what would she know? But still she shakes her head as she peers into the darkness. “I’ll wait here for you.”
“No.” Abigail takes a deep breath and smiles firmly again. She smells of her strawberry ChapStick. “Come on, Em, let me live a little, huh? I’ll be fine. Promise.”
Abigail Blake is seventeen and, like all girls her age, she believes she’s going to live forever. Deep down, Emma believes it, too, and that is why she leaves her friend there, where the stomped-down grass of the field meets the trees, and slouches back out past the Tall Bones to her car. The fire is still crackling away, its light snaking off the surface of those towering pale rocks. The partygoers cheer as they smash beer cans together and hurl them onto the fire, cooing with delight as the flames whoosh higher into the dark.
Emma doesn’t look back. If she had, she might have seen Abigail hesitate, hand outstretched as if perhaps, in the end, she hadn’t really expected Emma to leave.
There is another young man watching her from the other side of the bonfire. He has a wicked sort of gaze, which makes Emma feel as if she’s shivering even though she isn’t. She has seen him around, lingering on the edge of town since springtime, but she knows him only by sight. A profile sharp enough to cut cocaine, dark hair brushing the collar of his worn-out leather jacket: there is something in the motion of his hips, the way he juts out his chin, that feels like he might have been a highwayman in a previous life. Evening rain has stripped back the heat of the day, and now his cigarette breath hovers in the cool air the way storm clouds do around mountain peaks. When she looks again, he is gone.
“Where have you been?” Dolly Blake stubs out her cigarette as her eldest son tries to close the front door quietly behind him.
Noah emerges from the gloom of the hallway, and for a moment Dolly tenses, seeing in his lean, lanky shape that of her husband. From a distance they are often confused for one another—the same down-and-out plaid shirts, that same flash of red hair, same high-set shoulders, as if they’re worried someone might peek over and see something they shouldn’t. But although at twenty-two he is a man now, Noah’s face retains the gentle edges of youth, which his father, Samuel Blake, exchanged a long time ago for a wiry beard and weathered skin from long hours spent hauling timber. Dolly breathes a sigh of relief.
“You’re lucky your dad went to bed early,” she says. “What did you do to your jeans? They’re filthy.”
“None of your business.”
Above him on the wall hangs the large gemstone cross that Dolly’s mother-in-law gave her as a wedding present nearly a quarter of a century ago. Behind it, Dolly knows, there is a hole where Samuel once punched through the plaster.
“Don’t give me that attitude, young man,” she says, but she isn’t looking at her son, she’s looking at the cross. “I don’t care how old you are, when you live under this roof, you get yourself home on time, and you talk to your mother with more respect.”
“You never give Abi the third degree like this.” He steps around her with his long muddy legs, and beats a hard, familiar tattoo up the stairs to his room.
Dolly sighs and digs her nails into her scalp. She wishes he weren’t the only one she can stand to lose her temper around, but she knows she has to lose it sometimes. Otherwise one day she might just burst.
Emma turns the car radio on, some late-night psychic—who says nothing of the events to come—so she drives away from Abigail without a second thought. Puddles on the county road flash yellow in her headlights, and the smell of wet tarmac coming through the air vents reminds her of wax crayons. She knows the route well, even at night. On either side steep banks are covered with conifers, leading up to dusty mountain peaks where the trees grow stumpy and fade out altogether as they approach the timberline.
After a mile, the tree line following the curve of the road breaks away. Pine bark beetles have infected the evergreens here, and huge patches of the woodland are gray and brittle. In the daylight, through their thin dead branches, she can glimpse the blackened remains of the old Winslow house, hollowed out by fire over a century ago. Usually she can look right through the empty windows all the way to the other side, and even though she knows she won’t be able to see a thing in the dark, Emma glances at it as she drives by, just out of habit.
There is a light.
Something glimmers behind an old window frame. Emma slows the car, but the light swings suddenly, sharply, and is snuffed out.
She will tell the police this when they question her, eventually, plundering all the last precious details she has of Abigail.
The bonfire has been tamped down and now the blackened circle of its remains looks like somewhere a UFO might have come to land. The Tall Bones are silent silhouettes against a night sky silvered with moonlight. The partygoers have scattered back down the road toward Jerry Maddox’s trailer park, or crammed into their friends’ cars and driven home through the woods, so there is no one around to hear the gun when it goes off.
Tomorrow is Sunday, and the Blakes cannot yet imagine that they will sit in their usual lonely row of fold-up plastic chairs at church without Abigail beside them. Tomorrow is Sunday, and Emma is supposed to bleach Abigail’s hair for her, because Abigail is tired of being ginger, even though she knows her parents will say she looks cheap. Tomorrow is Sunday, and Emma lies awake listening to the coyotes wail and wishes she were one of them. In the morning she will check her phone, void of any reassurance from Abigail that she made it safely home. Her eyes will return to that box of bleach, sitting unopened on the dresser, and somehow, she will know.
By the end of the week, Abigail’s face will grin emptily from a hundred flyers tacked to telephone poles and church billboards, flapping in the Rocky Mountain breeze. Samuel Blake will go out into the forest with the police department, crying his daughter’s name into the trees. Noah will scrub the stains on his jeans until his fingers are raw, and Emma will hide the box of bleach under her bed. Dolly, sucking on her cigarettes, will knead the flaky flesh of her scalp, and stare at the big cross hiding the hole in the wall, afraid that, now, all the wrong things will come out.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Where the Truth Lies includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anna Bailey. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When a teenaged girl disappears from an insular small town, all of the community’s most devastating secrets come to light in this stunningly atmospheric and slow-burning suspense novel—perfect for fans of Megan Miranda and Celeste Ng.
The town of Whistling Ridge guards its secrets.
When seventeen-year-old Abigail goes missing, her best friend Emma, compelled by the guilt of leaving her alone at a party in the woods, sets out to discover the truth about what happened. The police initially believe Abi ran away, but Emma doesn’t believe that her friend would leave without her, and when officers find disturbing evidence in the nearby woods, the festering secrets and long-standing resentment of both Abigail’s family and the people of Whistling Ridge, Colorado, begin to surface with devastating consequences.
Among those secrets: Abi’s older brother Noah’s passionate, dangerous love for the handsome Rat, a recently arrived Romanian immigrant who has made his home in the trailer park in town; her younger brother Jude’s feeling that he knows information he should tell the police, if only he could put it into words; Abi’s father’s mercurial rages and her mother's silence. Then there is the rest of Whistling Ridge, where a charismatic preacher advocates for God’s love in language that mirrors violence, under the sway of the powerful businessman who rules the town, insular and wary of outsiders.
But Abi had secrets, too, and the closer Emma grows to unraveling the past, the farther she feels from her friend. And in a tinderbox of small-town rage, and all it will take is just one spark—the truth of what really happened that night—to change their community forever.
Topics & Questions for Discussion (12-15 Discussion Questions)
1. Where the Truth Lies is told from multiple perspectives. Was there any narrator whose point of view you found most interesting to be immersed in? Was there a perspective you found it challenging to read?
2. All the characters we meet in Whistling Ridge have at least two sides to them and many secrets they keep; in what way does the town itself have two sides, and what secrets does it keep?
3. Friendship and trust are very important elements in the novel; what qualities of friendship does Anna Bailey explore through her characters? Whose friendship do you think is the most supportive and healthy?
4. Do you think it was right for Melissa to keep the secret about Emma’s father from her for so long?
5. Dolly and Melissa both desperately want to be good mothers, though they are struggling, but their own secrets have some harmful effects on their children. In what ways are Dolly and Melissa’s struggles similar and in what ways do they differ? Did you empathize with them?
6. At the beginning of the novel, Emma describes the Tall Bones as “a circle of white rocks, about twelve feet tall, etched with generations of teenage graffiti, ice damage, and grooves where moose have rubbed the velvet off their antlers. Nobody knows who put them there. As far as Emma knows, nobody’s ever thought to find out. She often wonders how far down they go, how much of them is sitting there buried under the earth. Later she will think, in that respect, that the Tall Bones remind her a little of Abigail” (p. 40). Who or what else in the novel can you compare to the Tall Bones? Why are they such an important symbol in this story?
7. Anna Bailey doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of small-town life, including poverty, prejudices, and a lack of options and opportunities. Were there any parts of life in Whistling Ridge that surprised you? Does it align with your experiences or thoughts about small-town life, or does it diverge? How did this influence your reading experience?
8. The adult men in Whistling Ridge don’t have many redeeming characteristics. How is toxic masculinity explored through these characters? Do you think there are any positive male role models in the novel?
9. In your opinion, what draws Emma to Hunter? What were your thoughts about Hunter at the beginning of the novel, and did they change by the end of the book?
10. Why do you think many residents of Whistling Ridge are so resistant to and prejudiced against outsiders, or people they don’t believe belong? How did the negative and aggressive attitudes toward outsiders in this town develop, do you think?
11. As the truth begins to emerge and the novel comes to its conclusion, several shocking actions occur. Was there one moment in particular that you found especially surprising or were part of a twist you didn’t see coming?
12. When Emma begins to drink, and her mother finds out, Emma thinks to herself, “It’s not like Emma got drunk to hurt her. It wasn’t about her; it was about control. They only control Emma has is over this angry little body of hers, and screwing it up for a while feels like power, the way a mad king might slaughter his people, just to prove he can” (p. 64). What other destructive control tactics do characters employ throughout the novel? Do you think they are as self-aware as Emma and realize their actions are desperate bids for control in their lives?
13. The novel’s title can be interpreted in multiple ways: in what way did you read it when you first began the novel and when you finished it?
14. Anna Bailey leaves Abi’s fate open to interpretation. Do you think she survived? Is the woman Rat sees Abi, do you think?
Enhance Your Book Club (3-5 Enhance Your Book Club Suggestions)
1. Choose another psychological suspense novel set in a small town, like Mindy Mejia’s Everything You Want Me to Be. Compare and contrast the depiction of small-town life and how the authors portray small, close-knit communities and the secrets they keep.
2. Anna Bailey’s novel shows the many effects of domestic abuse on family members. As a group, consider finding a local women’s shelter and either donate much-needed supplies or volunteer your time there.
3. To learn more about Anna Bailey, request that she visit your book club, and more, find her on Twitter @annafbailey or Instagram @annabaileywrites.
A Conversation with Anna Bailey (10–12 Questions)
Q: If structured differently, your novel could have certainly functioned as more straightforward literary fiction, considering the deep dives into your characters’ inner lives and the rich language. What made you want to write your novel in the suspense genre? What draws you to this genre?
A: Crime novels have a great structure to them, because they start with a question (Who killed X? Why did Y disappear?) and you know by the end you’ll have to answer it. It provides this simple but effective framework, and you can pretty much write whatever you want between that, so long as you answer the question you posed at the beginning—so long as you solve the mystery. I was very drawn to this as a debut novelist; I was always worried I wouldn’t be able to finish the book, but knowing there was an end in sight really encouraged me to keep going. It’s also a genre that allows you to take your characters and your reader to some pretty dark places, and as a true crime and horror fan, this is where I want to be, fiction-wise. I do love deep diving into characters’ lives though—I think characters are the most interesting part of any story—and I would love to write something straight-up literary one day.
Q: Are there any psychological or domestic suspense novels or writers who you read while writing this novel, or who you feel inspired your writing? Is it a genre you read often? What books do you like to read for escape?
A: I actually hadn’t read a lot in this genre before I started writing Where the Truth Lies. I’m a big fan of literary authors like Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout, and Annie Proulx; their work is so character-driven, and that was something I knew I wanted to do with my own writing, but literary fiction felt a bit daunting to me as a debut novelist. I seriously doubted anyone would be that interested in what I had to say. But I was very inspired by Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You—I really admired the way she wrote about this family falling apart, centered around a mystery that keeps you turning the pages.
Nowadays I read a lot more crime fiction, and I’m particularly fond of Jane Harper, Paula Hawkins, and S J Watson. I get sent a lot of brilliant proofs as well, and I was really impressed by Norwegian writer Helene Flood’s new suspense novel The Therapist. When I’m not reading for work, I enjoy queer historical fiction.
Q: When in the drafting process did you know you wanted to write the novel from multiple perspectives? When you started writing the novel, was there any one character in particular whose voice and POV you wanted to explore? How did you plan your plot so that the right character narrated at the right time, in order to reveal—or conceal—information to keep the reader hooked?
A: I’d written an early draft that was only told from two characters’ perspectives, but I found it hard to fit the story into this limited set of POVs. More perspectives gave me more insight into how this town functioned, which was vital because it’s really a story about the town as much as it is about Abigail’s disappearance. I think I found Emma’s POV the most challenging to write, actually, because she’s the one investigating what happened to Abigail, and so her storyline required the most plotting—but on top of that, I still wanted her to feel like a fully realized character, and not just a two-dimensional figure to facilitate the plot, so her chapters could certainly be tricky. I like to plot things physically, writing events out on Post-its and moving them around by hand; I feel like that’s the easiest way for me to keep track of things (and as my editors can attest, I still manage to forget things).
Q: Was there any character who you were especially drawn to, or whose arc—despite writing it yourself—moved or surprised you?
A: I really enjoyed writing Dolly. She was the character who launched this whole novel—at university I wrote a short story about a woman whose daughter was missing, and how this affected her relationship with her remaining sons, and it wasn’t a very good piece of writing, but that concept stayed with me, and so when I realized I wanted to write a mystery set in the Rockies, it was great to be able to dig up those characters again and put them to use at last. Dolly provided me with a lot of creative freedom (after all, I’m not a fortysomething mother of three with a missing child, so that was already an interesting writing challenge), and she was an outlet for a lot of the complicated feelings I had to work through as a result of my time in the US, which made writing her story very cathartic. Her climactic moment in the novel was originally going to be Noah’s, but when the time came, I felt that she deserved this chance to stand up for herself just as much.
Dolly is the only character whose name stayed the same through every draft, so I think she was always the one who was most important to me.
Q: Did the characters come to you first, or did the setting? How important is the mountain west and its small towns to the feel of your novel and the shaping of your characters?
A: I already had a few ideas for characters (like Dolly and her children), but it was the setting that prompted me to write this particular novel, I think. Coming from a small village in the west of England, Colorado was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The Rockies had a real brutal kind of beauty to them that I instantly fell in love with, but it’s not an easy landscape to live in. Despite the huge, seemingly endless mountains, the world can feel very narrow in a place like that, and I often felt trapped in those small towns. It made me think about the different ways a place has of trapping people—maybe you can’t leave because of poverty, or family, or drugs—and I wanted to explore the lengths a character might go to in order to escape that situation.
Q: You lived in Colorado for several years, what did you most want to depict about this particular region?
A: I mostly lived in Texas actually, but Colorado was somewhere I visited a lot before eventually moving there, and I was really drawn in by these vast, powerful landscapes, which I wanted to portray in Where the Truth Lies. I think we have a really interesting, primal relationship with wild places; as a species we’ve grown up on tales not to go into the woods alone, and I really wanted to build on that kind of instinctive fear. The story starts with a girl being practically swallowed up by the forest, because I wanted to say right off the bat that this place may be beautiful, but it is definitely not safe.
Q: Were there any small towns in particular that influenced the setting of Whistling Ridge?
A: Estes Park, Grand Lake, and Lyons—all in Colorado—were visual inspirations for Whistling Ridge. All the distances between certain locations in the story are even based on real distances between Estes and landmarks in the surrounding area. Red River, New Mexico, was another Rocky Mountain town that inspired me as well. The politics of Whistling Ridge, though, are mainly drawn from the various places I spent time in down in Texas. This being said, I think small towns have plenty in common wherever you go, on whatever continent, and there was probably, subconsciously, a lot from my own British small-town upbringing that made its way into this story too.
Q: What do the Tall Bones represent to you? Why did you decide to include these formations and have them play such a symbolically important part in the plot?
A: Honestly, I’m just fascinated by stone circles. It’s only really in the last few years that I’ve started traveling—not just outside the UK, but outside of the West Country and Wales; that whole west side of the British Isles is where I’ve spent most of my life, and it’s a place drenched in folklore, full of ancient monuments, and I grew up around all these strange standing stones, reaching out of the landscape. They remind me of home. I was very lonely in America, and so when it came to writing this novel, I wanted to bring a piece of my own upbringing to the story, and have the Tall Bones be a place where the local teenagers felt safe.
Q: Why did you decide to make Rat from Transylvania? What about that heritage was important to you to include?
A: There are various narratives about intolerance in this novel, but I wasn’t trying to say that America is the only country where these things happen, and Rat’s story came about much more as a result of what was going on the UK at the time. Xenophobia is a huge problem in Britain, made worse by Brexit, and Eastern Europeans living in the UK have faced terrible backlash from large swathes of the country. When I lived in the US, Trump had just come to power and anti-immigrant sentiment was rife, so it was easy to marry these two threads together, but what happens to Rat in this book is really aimed at certain British readers more than Americans.
Q: Was it challenging to write from the perspectives of adults, teens, and children? Did any come more naturally or easily to you? Did you have any concerns about having a child narrator in Jude?
A: So much of writing is about empathy, and I think so long as you can imagine how different people feel, you can write about anybody. With Dolly, for example, I don’t know firsthand the grief of imagining that my child might be dead, but I do have my own experiences of grief, and it wasn’t hard to take those feelings and transpose them onto the fictional circumstances of the novel. You shouldn’t be put off writing certain characters because they’re older than you, or a different gender or social background etc., or fiction would be terribly boring.
With Jude, I wrote him as being a teenager in the original draft, so I wasn’t thinking about having a child narrator at all, but my agent thought he would work better as a twelve-year-old, so I rewrote parts of the novel to make that fit. I did find that challenging, and my editors made loads of helpful suggestions when it came to getting his voice right, which I really appreciated, because it was sometimes hard to get some distance from being a child myself. I was only twenty-four at the time and being twelve was just half my lifetime ago, so I was remembering it like a young person remembers it, which is to say, I felt like I was a lot more grown up in those days than I actually was!