In this YA thriller, a teenage girl investigates a friend’s suicide, entangling her in dangerous intrigue.
“Last year, my family celebrated my mother’s birthday by conning an eighty-five-year-old woman out of ten thousand dollars,” writes 17-year-old Eleanor Ames. After cooperating with the FBI, Ellie is now trying to go straight, living with her older sister Harper, who left the con-artist life years ago, and Harper’s boyfriend, Aidan, a Secret Service agent, in the Washington, D.C., area. Ellie attends expensive Holden Prep thanks to financial aid; three months ago, her only friend there—Simon Gilbert, a senator’s son—supposedly killed himself following its spring formal. But Ellie questions this, especially when she learns new details that raise suspicions about two popular juniors at Holden who knew Simon: Bret Thomas and Dominic DeLuca. (As the author acknowledges, the book owes a debt to the TV series Veronica Mars.) In addition, Miles Beckett, an overly starched new student who lives with his uncle in Ellie’s apartment complex, starts asking questions about Simon. Ellie decides to use her well-honed grifter skills to gain the in-crowd’s trust and investigate, though she’s torn between honesty and deceit—especially when she joins forces with straight-laced Miles. He has a few things to hide too, it turns out, and both struggle with trust as their mutual attraction grows. Ellie and Miles uncover increasingly explosive secrets, including illicit surveillance, drug sales, blackmail, and an organization of assassins, leading to a perilous climax. Cross (You Before Anyone Else, 2016, etc.) is skillful in revealing character and bringing out elements of Ellie’s unusual past as they relate to her present struggles. For example, she almost drowned a few months ago, never having learned to swim because her father said that “swim lessons were for kids with social security numbers”; later, her fear of water becomes an issue. Cross also handles the details of con jobs and spycraft well, although her teen-spy subplot is tough to buy. The story’s suspense loses some force through an overlong final third or so, but this is still a promising start to a series.
An enjoyably twisty, romantic, and thoughtful prep-school mystery.