THE WOMAN IN THE LIBRARY
Ned Kelly award winning author, Sulari Gentill sets this mystery-within-a-mystery in motion with a deceptively simple, Dear Hannah, What are you writing? pulling us into the ornate reading room at the Boston Public Library.
But fair reader, in every person’s story, there is something to hide…
The tranquility is shattered by a woman’s terrified scream. Security guards take charge immediately, instructing everyone inside to stay put until the threat is identified and contained. While they wait for the all-clear, four strangers, who’d happened to sit at the same table, pass the time in conversation and friendships are struck.
- Poisoned Pen Press
- June 2022
- 288 Pages
A SheReads Book Club Pick for Summer 2022
A POPSUGAR Must Read Thriller and Mystery in 2022 pick
A Book Riot 15 Best New Mysteries of 2022
A Goodreads Most Anticipated New Mystery
A Bookbub Most Anticipated Books of 2022
“A page-turner from beginning to end. As Gentill’s characters grow, the desire to know more about each ensnares us, and the only way out is to read to the end.” — New York Journal of Books
“A sophisticated mystery with more layers than an onion, created by a master hand. Clever plot twists in Gentill’s signature refined style will make you feel smarter just by reading. Sulari Gentill has done it again.”—Ellie Marney, New York Times bestselling author
“A delicious read… Cunningly crafted, with layers that fold back and feed upon each other, charming characters, and revelations that will make you cringe and gasp. You will feel a rising sense of dread as you read it, but you won’t want to stop.”—Daniel O’Malley, author of The Rook
“The library setting, the conceit of four strangers at a table, and the twisty story-within-a-story make Gentill’s novel unputdownable. The book is a treat for readers who love books about books and who like their mysteries to keep them guessing until the very last page.”—Eva Jurczyk, author of The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
1. When Freddie, Whit, Cain, and Marigold get coffee together for the first time, Freddie mentions that it was the start of her friendship with a killer. Who did you suspect in that moment?
2. Thanks to the emails, we are regularly reminded that Freddie’s story is fiction. Did that change your experience of the mystery at all?
3. Freddie, Whit, Marigold, and Cain become intimate friends very quickly. Have you ever made friends in a similar way? What circumstances (besides manufactured peril) led to these types of sudden, intense friendships?
4. Marigold insists to the others, “A scream is supposed to bring help, and we heard her scream.” Do you think of yourself as being responsible for strangers? How effective is bystander intervention?
5. Describe the role of Freddie’s neighbor Leo. How does he change Freddie’s perspective?
6. Do you think the other characters took Marigold’s stalking behavior seriously? What would you do if your friend was acting like Marigold?
7. Freddie questions herself for trusting Cain several times but never really changes her mind. Where do you think her loyalty comes from?
8. In his emails, Leo insists that Hannah specify the races of her characters, pointing out that it could drastically change their experiences and perspectives in a story set in America. What does a story gain by making race explicit? What are the potential drawbacks?
9. Caroline and Whit planned to test whether they could goad Cain back into a life of crime. If they had executed their plan as they originally intended, what do you think would have hap- pened? What does their experiment reflect about our attitudes toward convicted criminals?
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR
The subplot contained in the emails from Leo is chilling, and it adds another layer of fiction to Freddie’s story. Why did you decide to use it as a frame?
I was writing another novel, to be honest, when the frame of this one was conceived. That novel, too, was set in the U.S. I live in Australia, and so, to ensure I wrote the details of place correctly, I enlisted the help of a friend of mine—also a novelist and, importantly, an American who was in the U.S. at the time. We’d exchange emails, and he’d do the legwork whenever I needed to research anything to do with location. Now my friend (let’s call him Leo) is a very earnest and thorough researcher. He would send me not only information but pictures and maps and footage of things he thought might enhance the sense of place in my story. And so, to this end, he sent me a video file of a crime scene—a murder that had taken place a couple of blocks from where he was staying. The footage was mainly of coroners’ vans and police cordons (no bodies), but when I mentioned the video to my husband, his response was “Good grief, I hope Leo’s not killing people just so he can send you research.” Hmmm. Of course, he wasn’t—I promise—but it did strike me as an excellent idea for a novel.
So I guess the decision was made while I was in the middle of writing another book. I put the idea to the back of my mind where it brewed until I finished the novel I was writing. When I was ready to start the manuscript that would become The Woman in the Library, I knew it would begin with “Dear Hannah…”
As the emails point out, in the upcoming years, contemporary novelists will have to carefully choose whether to include the coronavirus pandemic or not. How are you thinking about that for your own writing?
In addition to being a disaster on a planetary scale, the coronavirus pandemic presents contemporary novelists with a dilemma. Coronavirus is part of contemporary reality—ignoring it is a little like ignoring cell phones or computers. At best, it dates the novel, and at worst, it makes the story entirely implausible.
Even so, there is a real temptation for writers to, henceforth, set all our novels in 2019. Doing so would avoid the complications and distraction that COVID-19 introduces to a story. It’s difficult to confine something like the pandemic, to allow it to play any small part without it taking over the narrative. It’s like trying to write a novel set in France in 1917 without it becoming a war story. It can be done, but it is problematic. Moreover, the pandemic is not yet history and may not be for a long time—we are not at this point sure how it will turn all out. It is a changing backdrop to everything, so it’s almost impossible to write a contemporary story that will still be contemporary a year from now, and setting a novel in the near future, with the pandemic being over, is a gamble.
That said, just because it’s hard, just because it’s risky, doesn’t mean that one should not try. The challenge is, I suppose, to write about the pandemic in a way that’s creative enough that it complements rather than dominates the story you’re trying to tell, that is somehow timeless and contemporary, not just now but a year from now and ten years from now. In The Woman in the Library, I included the pandemic through this very dilemma. Leo demands its inclusion, Hannah refuses to let it into her story, but through them, I allowed it into mine.
Cain becomes a suspect in Caroline’s murder in part because of his first novel. Do you ever worry about something similar happening to you?
Ha! All mystery writers probably have very incriminating google search histories!
Publishing a novel is a scary proposition for so many reasons. A novel isn’t just the product of a writer’s mind—there’s a lot of the writer’s heart in it too. Putting that out into the world and hoping that readers will like it is a little like sending your child to school and hoping they’ll find friends. It’s exciting and kind of wonderful, but also terrifying. You care more than you ever thought you would, and you worry—about bad reviews, slow sales, and most of all, that readers won’t like it.
Arrest for murder pales by comparison!
It does also occur to me that if I were a murderer, being a novelist would be a great smokescreen. There’d be so much normally incriminating evidence I could explain as research.
You also write the Rowland Sinclair mystery series. Does it feel significantly different to write a standalone project like this one as opposed to an ongoing series?
In some ways, writing a standalone novel is like writing the first book of a series. Anything could happen because you’re not building on a history established in previous books. Every character’s past is a mystery to unearth. Each of them has to gain the reader’s interest, make the reader care, without the benefit of past adventures together having created a bond. I suppose the big difference is that a standalone novel, as opposed to the first book of a series, requires you to say goodbye. You have to be able to finish with your characters, take them to a place where you are happy to walk away, and leave them to their own devices. For writers, at least, that can be tough. By the time a novel is written, a writer has spent hundreds of hours with the characters of her book… She has been through all manner of peril with them, so it’s hard to give them up. I expect there are a few unexpected sequels that exist for no other reason than the writer missed the characters too much to stay away.