Karen McManus came up with the idea for her debut novel on her commute. She was listening to the radio when Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” came on the radio, reminding her of The Breakfast Club. She wondered if you could put a modern spin on the movie’s setup of five different high school archetypes trapped in detention together. “The phrase ‘The Breakfast Club with murder’ popped into my head,” she says.
That initial spark eventually became the bestselling One of Us Is Lying, in which five students get stuck in detention only for one of them, the creator of an infamous gossip app, to end up dead. What initially appears as a tragic accident slowly morphs into a murder investigation that unearths each of the surviving teen’s darkest secrets. There’s Bronwyn, the high achiever who cheated in chemistry; Cooper, the baseball player who supposedly used performance-enhancing drugs but may be hiding something else; Addy, the homecoming princess who cheated on her boyfriend; and Nate, the delinquent who’s violating his probation by selling drugs.
The parallels to The Breakfast Club, with its jock, princess, geek, criminal, and basket case characters, are undeniable.“I love the idea of different types of people being pulled together and forced to interact with one another and, through those interactions, coming to see what they have in common instead of what divides them,” McManus says. As the characters get to know each other, they also come to grips with who they are beneath the expectations other people have of them.
The Breakfast Club isn’t the only influence key to the novel. From literature, McManus borrowed the intricate plotting of Agatha Christie’s thrillers, particularly the everyone-has-a-motive setup of Murder on the Orient Express. From TV, she took the duplicitous teens of Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars, “the notion that there’s this constantly churning rumor mill somewhere.”
Rumors, secrets, and lies are the engine of the story. “They’re all lying—the title is misleading—but not necessarily about what you might think,” McManus explains. Many of their secrets are more about a mismatch of what’s expected of them and what they actually want than any serious error. “It is a time of life when what other people think of you is really important and so things that might seem like not such a terrible secret when you’re an adult feel very different when you’re 17,” McManus says.
Her own teen years were considerably less eventful. There was still gossip and drama, but without social media they lacked the brutal power of the students’ secrets in One of Us Is Lying. “You’re only actually showing a small portion of your life, but the way people react to it and to you can really feel like the definition of you, especially when you’re younger,” McManus says. As a writer, however, she’s found the community on social media welcoming.
The success of the novel—it’s spent the better part of a year on the New York Times bestseller list and has been optioned for a TV show—took McManus by surprise, but she’s not dwelling on it. She’s already looking ahead to her next book about two teens trying to unravel the secrets of their families and their town. Still, she’s thrilled so many readers have connected to her characters. “I feel like they feel as real to other people as they are to me,” she says, “and that’s really gratifying.”
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.