I thoroughly enjoyed this creepy psychological thriller. The story is classic: a young, recent graduate, Adam Woods, wants to be a novelist. He studied art history at university so he jumps at the chance to go to Venice to teach a teenage boy English, as he will be able to write his great work in the afternoons. Things rapidly go wrong, though, as the boy gets a maid pregnant and so he is bundled off to relatives in New York by his parents in order to avoid any repercussions, leaving Adam unemployed. Adam is at a loose end in Venice, but decides to stay – the author draws in the reader with descriptions of this beautiful city, its history and its art, as Adam wanders about wondering what to do. Eventually, he finds a similar job. A reclusive and famous English author, Gordon Crace, lives in Venice and needs a housekeeper-cum-secretary. Crace wrote one novel in 1967 which was a huge bestseller, but has produced nothing since. Adam is intrigued by the older man, and sets about making himself indispensable by cleaning up the long-neglected house and cooking simple but delicious meals, as well as pandering to Crace's neurotic needs. Again, the author describes this process of rehabilitation of the house with simple brilliance. It doesn't take long before Adam, whose own novel is not going well, realises that he is in a unique position to write a biography of the obsessively secretive Crace. He has access to all the older man's papers, and learns that there has been a scandal associated with the famous book – a young man who lived with Crace committed suicide soon after publication – or did he?
Adam pursues his detection of Crace's life with a compelling, if nauseating, mix of academic research and deviousness. Gradually we realise that Adam himself has certain secrets, and is possibly not the nice young man we are initially led to believe. He fools Crace into letting him visit England, ostensibly to go to his grandmother's funeral but in fact to dig out all the details of the older man's past. The section in England is particularly compelling, as we are drawn into just how far Adam will go to find out the truth. But there are plenty of twists in store that keep us guessing about not only the truths of 40 years ago, but about who is manipulating who in the present narrative.
I was extremely impressed by this novel. As others (not least Kate Mosse on the cover blurb) have pointed out, it has elements of the power and perverse charm of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels and is also reminiscent, at least for the first half, of Diane Setterfield's wonderful THE THIRTEENTH TALE. But THE LYING TONGUE is not a derivative novel; the author has a fresh, assured voice and writes superbly and with a great sense of pace. One of the many reasons I liked this book is that it is a well-written story that depends for its punches on plot, atmosphere, tension and character, rather than on gadgetry, cliche or action sequences.