In The Spotlight: Lisa Unger’s In the Blood

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One strategy authors of psychological thrillers sometimes use is to raise doubts about whether
characters are what they seem to be. That doubt about who can be trusted can add layers of suspense to a story, and can add to the tension. Let’s take a look at how that works today and turn the spotlight on Lisa Unger’s In the Blood.

Lana Granger is about to graduate university with a degree in psychology. She’s not exactly sure what her next steps will be, although she does know she doesn’t want the ‘nine to five’ routine. The other thing she knows is that she needs to find a job. She gets an opportunity when her mentor Langdon Hewes suggests she apply for a position as after-school nanny to eleven-year-old Luke Kahn. Lana doesn’t have experience as a nanny, but at her tutor’s urging, she calls the number listed in the advertisement and goes to the Kahn home for an interview.

Luke’s mother Rachel outline’s Lana’s duties. Luke has severe emotional and social problems, and Rachel has a great deal of difficulty managing him. Still, she tries to make the best of this after-school position, and Lana accepts the job.

From the beginning, Lana has concerns about her charge. He is highly intelligent – even brilliant – but he soon shows that he is also very troubled. It’s not clear, at least to Lana, whether he is simply an extremely bright boy who is bored, whether he’s the unfortunate victim of some hidden abuse, or whether he’s dangerously disturbed. He’s been in and out of several schools, including special schools for what used to be called ‘troubled children.’ And it’s not long before Lana suspects that he may be trying to manipulate her.

Rachel doesn’t prove to be much help in the matter. She seems to be resigned to Luke; her attitude is more of ‘putting out fires’ than proactive solutions. In fact, she’s visibly relieved whenever Lana reports that things have gone well. As she interacts with Rachel, Lana begins to wonder whether she is in permanent denial, whether she’s an enabler, or whether she is hiding what may be her own role in Luke’s problems.

Then one terrible night, Lana’s friend and roommate Rebecca ‘Beck’ Miller disappears. When Beck’s parents report her missing, the police begin an investigation that includes interviews with Lana and the young women’s other roommate Ainsley. Lana claims that she doesn’t know what happened to Beck, but the more evidence the police get, the clearer it is that Lana knows more than she is saying. It’s just as clear that Luke is very much ‘tuned in’ to the investigation and to Lana’s reaction to it, and that he may be using what he knows and suspects to manipulate Lana even further. Bit by bit, we learn exactly what happened to Beck, and how it relates to the Kahn family and to a very dark secret in Lana’s past.

From the beginning, there are doubts about who is reliable and can be trusted, and who isn’t. Is Rachel the long-suffering mother of a troubled child, as she seems? Is she abusive? And what about Luke? Lana, too, may not be what she seems. She has a very dark history that plays a role in the novel; since she is the narrator, there’s also the element of the unreliable narrator in this novel. As the story unfolds, we learn little by little who all of these characters really are. Readers who enjoy novels that slowly ‘peel away’ surface levels of characters’ histories will be pleased at this aspect of the novel.

Another element in the novel is the depiction of what it’s like to parent a child with, particularly, emotional/psychological special needs. Like any parent of such a child, Rachel is overextended, exhausted and anxious. She’s tried any number of approaches, schools and the like to try to help her son, and now has to face the possibility that he may never be what most of us would call ‘well.’ She also has to cope with others’ judgements about her decisions. The question of whether Rachel is right or wrong in the way she manages her life and Luke’s is not an easy one. The choices that parents in this situation face are grim, and Unger makes that clear.

The solution to this puzzle – what ties all of the characters together – is not a straightforward one. Readers who prefer not to suspend very much disbelief will notice this. I can say without spoiling the story, though, that it’s not a supernatural or paranormal solution.

This is a story of psychological suspense, so while there is violence, the tension isn’t built through, say, a grim series of discoveries of bodies. Readers who dislike a lot of brutal violence will be pleased to know this novel doesn’t depend on that. That said though, this is not a light, easy novel. There is deep, deep sadness and darkness in some of these characters’ lives. Even though we learn what’s behind the events in the novel, that doesn’t really make the darkness go away, if I may put it like that.

The story is told, for the most part, from Lana’s perspective. Although she narrates the events accurately, that doesn’t mean she is necessarily a completely reliable narrator. And one aspect of the suspense in the novel comes from the question of what she may not be telling the reader.

Interspersed throughout the novel is also a set of journal entries. The reader isn’t told until late in the story who is keeping the journal, but it’s distinct from Lana’s narrative. Readers who do not like novels where the killer’s perspective is given in italics need have no fear, though. This is not a novel in which a mad serial killer goes after victims. At the same time, readers who prefer their stories be told from one perspective will notice this strategy.

In the Blood is the story of soon-to-be university graduate with a very dark, hidden secret who is thrust into a potentially very dangerous situation. It features characters who may be exactly what they seem – or may not – and shows the powerful effects of the past on people’s lives. But what’s your view? Have you read In the Blood? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 1 June/Tuesday 2 June – The Water Rat of Wanchai – Ian Hamilton

Monday 8 June/Tuesday 9 June – The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange – Anna Katherine Green

Monday 15 June/Tuesday 16 June – The Harbour Master – Daniel Pembrey


Filed under Lisa Unger

30 responses to “In The Spotlight: Lisa Unger’s In the Blood

  1. On the whole, I enjoyed this one, but with reservations. I liked her writing, and thought it was ‘fair play’ in the sense that the clues were all there. But I thought it was quite easy to work out the solution very early on which took a lot of the tension away. And I did find that I had to suspend my disbelief more than I like. However, the strengths outweighed the weaknesses for me, and I’ll be keen to read more of her stuff – though I think her next foray did go into the supernatural, so I avoided it and hope she goes back to mainstream crime at some point.

    • I hope so too, FictionFan. I think Unger has talent, and it’ll be interesting to see where she goes with it. I agree with you that the story asks one to suspend disbelief – probably more than some people would like. The clues were there, as you say, so one can’t say the solution comes ‘out of nowhere.’ I will be curious to know what Unger’s next might be like…

  2. I did enjoy this one Margot and although I worked out the whodunit fairly early on I thought the tension was maintained by trying to work out the why… great choice for a spotlight post.

    • Thanks, Cleo. And I am glad you enjoyed the novel. I agree completely that the ‘why’ really does matter a lot in this novel. And it’s not as obvious as it might seem, I don’t think.

  3. I have this one on my TBR list. I’m fond of unreliable narrators — it takes a good writer to pull if off, and I suspect Lisa Unger can handle it as well as any.

  4. Interesting review Margot, have this on my TBR pile so should try to move it nearer the top!

  5. Patti Abbott

    I am awestruck by how many of your readers have read books you discuss. Need to hide my head in shame.

  6. I don’t want to read the comment section today, because now even more I want to read this book. I was so excited to see it listed as an upcoming spotlight, and now that it’s here — it’s even better than I imagined. Thank you!

  7. I like the sound of this a lot – I don’t think I’ve read anything by this author, so must add her to my list. Thanks Margot for a very interesting spotlight.

    • There are aspects of it, Moira, that are very interesting. And I think among other things, it gives a glimpse of a modern US university campus. Not a perfect novel, but some really solid aspects, if I may get a bit subjective.

  8. Hi Margot – I did enjoy this – and her next one Crazy Love you is a fast moving, intense and very emotional psychological thriller – with a paranormal element – that is important element but only a part of the narrative – not the whole story. The unreliable narrator is a tool used in both books to create tension – and it works well in both.

  9. Col

    Thanks for the insight, sounds an interesting read, but I probably prefer less of the psychological and a bit more action to drive my books. I’m buried already under an avalanche, so I’ll pass.

    • I know just what you mean about being buried under a TBR avalanche, Col. I don’t think I’ll ever have a quarter of the amount of time I’d need to read everything I want to read *sigh.*

  10. I do like the sound of this – sounds a bit like Highsmith, an uther I greatly admire though don;t often ‘enjoy reading 🙂

    • You know, I thought a bit of Highsmith when I was preparing this post, Sergio. Unger of course has her own style and so on. But there are some comparisons I think. In both, for instance, there’s a solid sense of growing menace that I think is done well.

  11. Kay

    I liked this one very much and have enjoyed other books by this author. The setting of upstate New York is the same as other books by her. She has a loosely connected sort of series and by that I mean that there are characters from other books that might show up in tangential ways. The first one set in that location was Fragile. In The Blood has many secrets and I think that part of the fun is the puzzle. I, too, am looking forward to seeing what comes next for her.

    • I’m glad you mentioned the setting, Kay, because you’re right; it is solidly done. And it’s interesting how Unger ties her novels together. It’s not, as you say, a conventional series, with story arcs and the like. But those loose connections can help readers interested in all of the books.

  12. I loved Unger’s voice in this novel. She really managed to draw me in and keep me interested. I loved the nature/nurture debate that was ongoing throughout the read (though I think there’s a thin line between it being a fictional part of the story or hammering the debate down our throats). What disappointed me was the ‘twist’ was revealed or you were able to work it out far earlier than the book told you about it and after that I became a bit fed up of reading it. Up until that point she had me held there, but then she lost my interest. A mixed bag from me but I would read more from her.

    • Interesting point, Rebecca, about the nature/nurture debate. I think there’s a very thin line indeed between discussing something because it’s part of the plot, and going on and on about it. I’m glad you brought up the plot twist, too. I think that’s one important challenge that an author faces: how and when to reveal a plot twist (and how to avoid giving too much away too soon).

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