The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sagar

Emma Davis’s art career has blossomed. Her series of textured forest-scapes is a success. But Emma is haunted by the disappearance of her three older cabin mates from camp the summer she was thirteen. Despite the high-profile identities of the girls (one being a senator’s daughter) and the high-profile identity of Camp Nightingale (known to Emma’s school classmates as “Camp Rich Bitch”) investigators make no progress. The handsome son of the camp director is considered the main suspect due to young Emma’s accusations. But no charges are ever filed and no trace of the girls is ever found.

Riley Sager

Fifteen years later, Emma processes this trauma through her artwork. Hidden below the layers of paint at her gallery showing at the repeated likenesses of the vanished Vivian, Natalie, and Allison. When Franny, the director of Camp Nightingale, arrives at the gallery and offers Emma a summer position at the reopening camp, Emma realizes that she cannot pass up the opportunity for closure. She has never forgiven herself for the disappearances or Franny’s son Theo’s trials at the hands of the law.

Emma’s determination to investigate (or rather, her belief that she would succeed) required more willing suspension of disbelief that I had at the start of the novel. It is implied that she kept a critical secret about the disappearance, but her initial breakthrough relies on the convenient discovery of a hand-drawn map; I could not believe such a thing would not have been found in the attempt to locate a senator’s daughter.

However, the mystery continues on in an intriguing way, and the appearance of the map seems less outrageous as the characters and history are exposed. The prose alternates between the present and Emma’s short-lived camp experience fifteen years ago. She is a flawed and relatable thirteen-year-old, drawn to the egoistic and enigmatic Vivian. The sleuth at twenty-eight is a reluctant but not unreliable narrator, suspicious at every turn and desperately seeking answers to give her memories peace. 

The summer camp setting is beautifully haunting. Those who enjoy a good mystery but are more easily creeped out (like this reviewer) may prefer to read this at the beach instead of when camping in the woods. The truth about the camp and the characters is revealed in well-crafted morsels. And, most importantly, I was guessing about what really happened to the girls until the very end.

The Last Time I Lied
Riley Sager

Riley Sager photo credit: Jesse Neider