How far will you go to keep your family? What would you do if you and your loved ones are thrust in the middle of a scandal that might tear everything apart forever? That’s at the heart of Lori Rader-Day’s forthcoming domestic suspense novel, The Death of Us.
What happened to Ashley Hay? Would she come back to claim her son, Callan? These thoughts have haunted Liss Kehoe about her childhood rival ever since Ashley thrust Callan as a baby into her arms and disappeared. Fifteen-years later, Liss’s worst nightmare comes true—Ashley has returned but she is beyond claiming her biological son. Her car is found submerged in the quarry near Liss’ house, unearthed by a freak accident. Now everyone suspects Liss and her family of taking her rival out permanently. On top of it all, Liss’ fling Mercer is now investigating Ashley’s death. Liss desperately fights to protect herself, her son, and even her soon-to-be ex-husband from the ruthless gossip and police scrutiny.
This is her seventh novel, coming off of her historical triumph Death at Greenway. She’s a master of suspense in her books, especially with the many twists and turns of this latest work. Rader-Day is an Agatha, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark award-winning author. I talked with Lori about how the book came together.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Where did the idea to feature a quarry and a missing car come from? It almost feels like a true crime story.
I flew to Minneapolis in October, maybe the first flight after the pandemic and masked. I remember looking out the window of the plane, and seeing a quarry with water in the bottom. I don’t know if it’s technically a quarry lake, but it was a quarry that had been allowed to fill in a little bit. I remember thinking, ‘There have got to be some dead bodies at the bottom of a place like that,’ which is how mystery writers go about the world. Unfortunately, these are the things that occur to us and you see situations.
What was it about this story that made you want to write it?
What was interesting about that story to me was this idea that when something bad happens in a community, people think they know what happened. So they start reacting to what they think has happened, and they make other lives miserable. But what if they’re wrong? What if you can find out that the way that this [event] went down is not what we thought [had happened]. How do people feel and how do they deal with the things that they have done or said? So that’s where the story started.
What I like to write is that [story of] the average person thrust into extraordinary circumstances and watching what a normal person has to figure out what’s happening. Often that it is a murder, because most of the crime novels are based on unfortunate deaths in some way or another. But I’m never as interested in the crime itself as I probably should be, given what I do for a living. I’m really interested in the people who are experiencing it and living past it and having to find a way to go on with their lives.
One of things that struck me was how Liss is such a complicated character. It took a little bit for me to grow fonder of her and root for her because I didn’t know what to think at the beginning. Can you talk about the decision to make a character like Liss?
A lot of my answers about why I write what I write boils down to [the fact that] it’s interesting to me. Writing is a long game; it’s a lot of alone time, locked up in your house by yourself. A lot of it is about keeping your own attention, making yourself interested in coming back to the page. I think the characters are one of the strongest pieces for why writers carry on; They want to keep going on a story or a series because they have made these people who feel pretty real to them, and they want to know what happens.
I don’t know what I’m writing in advance. I mostly just start writing and see where it goes. I just kind of show up to the page wanting to see what’s going to happen to this person. What is she going to do about that? What did she do? Did she kill that person? I don’t know. Maybe she did.
I like complicated characters. When I teach, I talk about the whole likable/not likable thing and how it’s such a big deal. I think there are some genres where a likable protagonist is pretty essential. Romance is one of those. But with crime, I think you have a little flexibility there to write a character that’s interesting that is maybe not immediately your best friend.
Some of my favorite books are where protagonists are sociopaths to begin with. It’s like a writing experiment to see if I can get readers to go through a book where the characters are kinda insane like Ripley books by Patricia Highsmith and The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. It’s one of my favorite books. This is not that. I don’t want to hint that the main characters are psychopaths or the killers but I think we have leeway in crime fiction, where maybe we don’t in some other genres.
There’s not always going to be someone who’s immediately the cheerleader for the story. It’s someone who has lived a life and we’re dropping into the middle of it. I think if you’re basing your stories on characters that could be real, then you have to think about how most people are more than one thing. They are sometimes selfish, and sometimes good people, and sometimes smart about things and sometimes really, really dumb about things. So characters are allowed to do those things and be those things as well.
Did your characters take you to unexpected places?
I did not expect Liss to have this boyfriend in the middle of the situation. I started off thinking that Liss and Link are going to be amicably divorcing. But I didn’t really have in mind that she would consider bringing him back. It was sort of like she had moved on and she was going to have to get this divorce, [become] friends and raise this child together. But then Mercer walked in and for some reason, it felt to me like he was important to the story. I didn’t know how yet.
When I first added him, it was not as complicated. But then I thought about what it would be to be married as long as Liss and Link were. I thought she really wants her family whole; if that marriage can be saved, she wants it saved. I had to rethink it a little bit and create this situation, which was more complicated but maybe more realistic.
What else do you want me to know?
This book is my first post-pandemic book. It’s my first post-cancer book. What sets it apart for me is it was the first time trying to be creative in the face of everything we all went through. I think I was trying to tap into fears that were elemental for this book, the fears that most people have about daily life—that those closest to them aren’t what they seem or have been lying to them, or that the most important people in our lives could be taken from us, any minute.
The Death of Us
By Lori Rader-Day
William Morrow & Company
Published October 3, 2023
Elisa Shoenberger is a freelance writer and journalist in Chicago. She also has written for the Boston Globe, Huffington Post, WIRED Magazine, Slate, and others. She writes regularly for Book Riot, Murder & Mayhem, Library Journal, and Cheese Professor. She’s obsessed with dogsledding, murder mysteries and cheese.