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Small Towns, Big Secrets: 7 Gripping Novels Rife with Scandal

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Anna Bailey was born in Bristol and spent her childhood in Gloucestershire. She studied Creative Writing at Bath Spa university and wrote her first novel, Where the Truth Lies, inspired by her experience of living in small-town America after college.

In my book Where the Truth Lies, an isolated community in the Rocky Mountains struggles to cope with the disappearance of a teenage girl, Abigail Blake. The Blake family are social outcasts, and there are some who believe Abigail is better off missing, but her best friend Emma is desperate to find her. In her search, Emma uncovers the town’s underbelly of violence, bigotry, and religious control. In the end, Abigail’s disappearance leaves nobody unscathed. Having lived in several small towns myself, I find them fascinating. When you’re stuck in a place where everybody wants to know everyone else’s secrets, it can be an almost daily struggle to keep some part of yourself private, and this push and pull between secrecy and exposure creates the perfect tension for a mystery novel. Here are a few of my favorite stories about small towns hiding big secrets.

Amy and Isabelle
by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout is quite possibly my favorite author, and, although she is best known for her later novel OLIVE KITTERIDGE, her debut AMY AND ISABELLE is a literary masterpiece that examines small-town politics in the ’60s and the troubled relationship between Isabelle Goodrow and her teenage daughter Amy. The story does involve a missing girl, but this is really a background element of the narrative, which focuses on the scandalous secret that Amy is keeping from her strict mother, while Isabelle herself is hiding the truth about her past from her daughter and the people of their small town in Maine. It’s an exquisitely written and deeply moving look at the damage that dishonesty can wreak.

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Amy and Isabelle
Elizabeth Strout

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All the Missing Girls
by Megan Miranda

Another protagonist returning to her hometown, Nicolette Farrell is pulled back into a decade-old missing-persons case when another young woman disappears. She believes the sudden vanishing of Annaleise Carter is connected to the disappearance of her best friend Corinne—a case in which Nicolette and her friends were the main suspects, with Annaleise acting as their alibi. Now that Annaleise too has gone missing, the truth of what really happened to both girls begins to unravel. I’m a huge fan of different timelines and narrative tricks, and so I love that this novel is told in reverse, making for even more twists and turns that keep you guessing right up to the end.

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All the Missing Girls
Megan Miranda

A spellbinding psychological thriller told in reverse, Megan Miranda’s first novel for adult readers is about the connected disappearances of two young women ten years apart in the same small town. Miranda has an uncanny talent for suspense. Megan Miranda’s new novel, THE PERFECT STRANGER, is just out.

Read a review of the book Megan Miranda can’t stop recommending.

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The Winter Sister
by Megan Collins

I think families make for one of the most interesting topics in mystery fiction—everybody’s family has secrets, and the stakes are always higher, and the exposure more devastating, when it’s people you love. THE WINTER SISTER is a brilliant example of this, with protagonist Sylvie returning home to care for her sick mother, the two of them still haunted by the unsolved murder of Sylvie’s sister, Persephone, sixteen years ago. This atmospheric novel really utilizes that wintry New England gloom, emphasizing the struggles of coming home to a place that has rejected you, as we explore Sylvie’s complex relationship with her family, her mother’s secrets, and her own guilt regarding her sister’s case.

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The Winter Sister
Megan Collins

A “haunting debut: suspenseful, atmospheric, and completely riveting” (Megan Miranda, New York Times bestselling author of All the Missing Girls) about a young woman who returns home to care for her ailing mother and begins to dig deeper into her sister’s unsolved murder.

Sixteen years ago, Sylvie’s sister, Persephone, never came home. Out late with the boyfriend she was forbidden to see, Persephone was missing for three days before her body was found—and years later, her murder is still unsolved.

In the present day, Sylvie returns home to care for her estranged mother, Annie, as she undergoes treatment for cancer. Prone to unexplained “Dark Days” even before Persephone’s death, Annie’s once-close bond with Sylvie dissolved in the weeks after their loss, making for an uncomfortable reunion all these years later. Adding to the discomfort, Persephone’s former boyfriend is now a nurse at the cancer center where Annie is being treated. Sylvie has always believed Ben was responsible for the murder—but she carries her own guilt about that night, guilt that traps her in the past while the world goes on around her.

As she navigates the complicated relationship with her mother, Sylvie begins to uncover the secrets that fill their house—and what really happened the night Persephone died.

The Winter Sister is a “bewitching” (Kirkus Reviews) portrayal of the complex bond between sisters, between mothers and daughters alike, and “will captivate you from suspenseful start to surprising finish” (Kathleen Barber, author of Are You Sleeping).

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The Dry
by Jane Harper

In Harper’s bestselling debut, Federal Police agent Aaron Falk returns to his hometown in rural Australia for the funeral of his childhood friend Luke, whose family have all been brutally murdered. The townspeople of Kiewarra believe Luke himself was responsible, but Falk becomes determined to prove otherwise. I love stories of people coming home to places that have previously rejected them, the emotional and social obstacles this creates for the characters. This is definitely the case for Agent Falk, as we learn why he and his father were driven out of town years before, and that he and Luke were hiding a mystery of their own.

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The Dry
Jane Harper

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle
by Shirley Jackson

This gothic classic revolves around Merricat Blackwood, living in isolation with her sister and ailing uncle in their crumbling manor house in Vermont, following the poisoning of the rest of the family six years earlier. The people in the nearby village are convinced that Merricat’s elder sister Constance was the culprit and have ostracized the family, so the Blackwoods have no real contact with the outside world until their estranged cousin Charles arrives. Merricat, who practices sympathetic magic, believes that Charles has brought bad luck with him, and, sure enough, the tension between the Blackwoods and the village soon comes to a catastrophic head. A master class in unreliable narration and creeping mystery, this is one of my all-time favorite novels.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson

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Sharp Objects
by Gillian Flynn

Flynn’s famed debut about journalist Camille Preaker returning to her small Missouri town to report on a series of brutal murders is one of my favorite crime novels, period. The fictional town of Wind Gap is hiding many secrets, but, beyond the two dead girls with their teeth pulled out, the real mystery revolves around Camille’s dysfunctional family, particularly her relationship with her cold mother. It’s a compelling and refreshing read, and I’m impressed that Flynn writes brutally, never shying away from the grisliest crime scenes or the violence that women inflict upon each other and themselves.

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Sharp Objects
Gillian Flynn

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To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee

This beloved classic follows young narrator Jean Louise “Scout” Finch through dreamlike, oppressively hot summers in her fictional Alabama town, where she and her older brother, Jem, become obsessed with their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley, while their lawyer father is tasked with defending an innocent Black man, not only from his white accuser, but from the prejudices of the whole town. The novel plays with many southern gothic tropes—mysterious Boo Radley and his decaying house seem almost supernatural at times—but ultimately shows us that the real horror here is bigotry of the townspeople themselves.

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To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

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Perhaps it’s a cliché to want to have dinner with Atticus Finch—lawyer, father, all-around good man. Atticus is known for his conscience, grace, compassion, and morality. I suspect that his words would be full of insight and wisdom, and challenge me to sit straighter in my chair.

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Where the Truth Lies
by Anna Bailey

Where the Truth Lies comes out on August 3! 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 longstanding resentment of both Abigail’s family and the people of Whistling Ridge, Colorado begin to surface with devastating consequences.

Explore the book club kit for WHERE THE TRUTH LIES!

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Where the Truth Lies
Anna Bailey

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 longstanding 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 recently 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, unpredictable 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 tinder box 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.

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