HELL TO PAY is the eagerly awaited third installment in Wendy Corsi Staub’s trilogy that began with LIVE TO TELL and continued in SCARED TO DEATH. The storylines of the preceding volumes are very complex, though Staub leads readers deftly through each of them; it is worth noting that reading the first two books will provide those new to the series with a wealth of information that is pertinent to the current offering. The narrative, though, stands on its own, with Staub’s trademark twists, turns, surprises and thrills carrying the day.
"The narrative...stands on its own, with Staub’s trademark twists, turns, surprises and thrills carrying the day."
The novel concerns, in part, a unification of a sort for the Walsh and Cavalon families, which heretofore had only a shared tragedy in common. Lucy Walsh and Jeremy Cavalon both narrowly escaped death after childhood encounters with a serial killer; they are married and awaiting the birth of their first child as the book opens, after experiencing two tragic miscarriages. Their lives are not without stress; Jeremy’s grandmother dies unexpectedly in what is erroneously believed to be an accidental fall, an event that coincides with the couple being suddenly and unceremoniously evicted from their apartment. They move into her vacated home in New York, a change that will give them the opportunity to save money to purchase a place of their own.
Jeremy, however, has a history of mental instability --- one that is understandable yet frightening. He appears to have conquered his demons, yet there is always the chance that they will manifest themselves once again. And while the move puts Lucy closer in proximity to her beloved but somewhat aimless brother Ryan, something is going on with him that he will not share with his sister. He is being especially secretive about Phoenix, his new girlfriend, who is just as secretive about herself. But what Lucy and Jeremy do not realize is that they are being observed and orchestrated by someone who is patiently waiting to complete a project that was initiated years before.
Some money here, a plate of cookies there, and things begin changing for Lucy and Jeremy in ways they never would have hoped or expected. Things become very, very dark for the couple; not everyone (maybe nobody) around them is who they seem to be. And before the last page is turned, they could well lose everything they have, and the chance to have everything they have ever wanted.
A warning: Do not become too emotionally invested in any particular character you meet here. Not all of them make it to the end, and at least one of those who do may leave you disappointed. However, you will not be disappointed in HELL TO PAY. Staub relies upon subtle clues and even more subtle misdirection to guide her readers down some wrong and right turns, speeding things up and slowing things down as necessary. In case you have a faint heart, sometimes the suspense becomes excruciating. Staub can take something as ordinary as an apartment building airshaft and compel a reader to think of it in an entirely different way.
If a full-length novel of such quality isn’t enough to entice you, an excerpt from NIGHTCRAWLER, which will publish in 2012, will not only tempt you, but also keep you waiting impatiently for next year.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 20, 2011