Book Review: Two Can Keep a Secret — Karen M. McManus

Karen M. McManus’ second novel is an evolution of her craft. One Of Us Is Lying was a hooky little high school mystery that couldn’t quite grasp the concept of unreliable narrators, but Two Can Keep A Secret is a small town extravaganza that ticks a lot of boxes. If you tick the right boxes in the right ways, it doesn’t matter if they’re clichés. This is a genre based around the right material done well.

Ellery Corcoran has never been to Echo Point, her mother’s hometown. Within minutes of moving there, she sees a dead body. Within days, a campaign of terror against the homecoming queens begins. Within weeks, one of the queens disappears. Ellery is a true crime junkie, and the main reason she was happy to relocate was to investigate the cold case of the homecoming queen found dead at Murderland some five years ago, but this is ridiculous even for her.255

If you’re keeping count: small town with a history of missing people and murder; an instant corpse; a Halloween themed park named Murderland (changed to Fright Farm after a corpse was found there); homecoming terror; fresh missing people. What that summary didn’t cover was that Ellery is a twin, and the daughter of a twin. Two Can Keep A Secret has a lot going for it conceptually, and McManus knows enough about writing a novel to sustain it to the end.

Two Can Keep A Secret is told from two perspectives, not quite alternating: that of Ellery, and Malcolm, the younger brother of the prime suspect in the five-year-cold murder of homecoming queen Lacey Kilfduff. McManus switches perspectives to withhold information from one character and to provide information from the other, and the balance that she strikes is never frustrating. Not once is there an instance where something is telegraphed very early and then played as a shock twist a hundred plus pages later.

Two Can Keep a Secret is clever in that it does not require the reader to suspend an unholy amount of disbelief: while Ellery is instrumental in cracking the cases that have plagued Echo Point, she does not do it singlehandedly, and the local law enforcement aren’t totally incompetent.  Unless she is Veronica Mars, a teen is not a Private Investigator (and even Veronica had Officer Leo, sometimes). Teenagers in Young Adult novels are famous for doing stupid things, and protagonists who find themselves thrown into the vicinity of ongoing murder investigations often place targets on their backs. Ellery, Malcolm and their cohort are active characters, but they’re never foolish about it; Two Can Keep a Secret never runs the risk of the dullness of passivity.

It’s not just about the story; Echo Point is itself a fascinating location. It’s apparently one of the richer towns in Vermont, but that doesn’t explain how it can sustain a haunted theme park, which provides employment for many of the local teens, even seasonally. It adds to the local colour and, despite the name change, the corpse found there hasn’t hurt business at all. McManus even build’s Vermont’s 95% whiteness into her story, creating an effective sense of outsiderness for the ethnically ambiguous Corcoran twins and their bisexual Korean-American friend Daisy.

With world building based around a series of irresistible hooks — realistically, one of them alone would be able to carry a book — Two Can Keep a Secret is busy, but not overstuffed. Ellery Corcoran is an ingenue who doesn’t deliberately put herself in harm’s way, even if harm finds her, and McManus knows how to write a final paragraph. As long as she can find fresh ways to make different groups of teens, perhaps even adults, brush with death and mystery — and can sustain her title numbering scheme — she has a place in publishing.

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