Peter Swanson’s new thriller, “All the Beautiful Lies,” is structured as a theme and variation with a motif that recurs in various — but somewhat unsatisfying — ways. Despite the deaths of multiple characters, the stakes never seem very high; instead, this is a book of patterns that may have been engaging to write but are less engaging to read.
Harry Ackerson is a new college graduate whose father has died mysteriously while on a walk. Harry’s stepmother, Alice — a woman much younger than her deceased husband — hopes Harry will stay with her and help keep his father’s bookstore open. Alice, the reader quickly learns, was swept up in a sexual relationship with her stepfather while still a teen. The repercussions of that relationship reverberate throughout the novel.
Harry is putatively the hero of the book, but he’s not a man of action nor of insight. Things just happen to him over the course of the story, and we never really have reason to root for him or to fear for his safety. Meanwhile, the theme of adults lusting after much younger individuals repeats with improbably regularity, making the book read more like a formal exercise than a page-turner.
Swanson does have one significant surprise he pulls off at book’s end. It’s the resolution of an important secondary plot, and Swanson sets it up well and uses it to create a definitive end point for his story.
Still and all, “All the Beautiful Lies” offers the reader few of the satisfactions of top-flight psychological thrillers.