THE LAST LIE marks the return of Stephen White’s popular protagonist, clinical psychologist Alan Gregory, and the familiar environs of Boulder, Colorado. His previous book, THE SIEGE, focused primarily on Boulder police detective Sam Purdy, who has an odd-couple friendship with Alan, and was set a galaxy away in New Haven, Connecticut. Sam plays an important role as conscience in this new, extremely complex novel. White has been careful to avoid formulistic writing in each volume of the series, and THE LAST LIE is no exception to this self-imposed rule. In some of his books, Alan actively influences what happens; in others, he seems to be more of an observer; and still in others, he almost fades into the wallpaper as events explode around him.
"I don’t think anyone has quite raised the particular issue that White does here --- I’ll be general and call it “justice” --- in such a thoughtful and illuminating matter."
Alan is very much involved in THE LAST LIE, which builds quite slowly; in fact, at certain points, it seems almost painfully so. I say “it seems” because the reasons for the extended build-up at the beginning, which variously involves Boulder real estate and the kid gloves treatment of celebrities by the legal system, are made clear in the final 100 pages. The result is a book in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, a novel that is one of the smartest and deepest I have read this year.
The heart of THE LAST LIE can be summed up by what one of the characters asks himself at the conclusion of a cataclysmic event near the closing of the book: What the hell does any of this have to do with an acquaintance rape at a housewarming party? Or, as Alan himself puts it, that damn housewarming party. The host --- and the apparent accused --- is a Boulder attorney named Mattin Snow, who has made a reputation and a fortune championing what are popularly known as women’s rights causes. Mattin and his wife, Mimi, are Alan and Lauren Gregory’s new neighbors. It is an extremely complicated dynamic under any circumstances, given that the Snows’ new home is the former residence of Peter and Adrienne, who, prior to their deaths, were dear friends of the Gregorys and the parents of Jonas, who is now the Gregorys’ 11-year-old stepson. The purchase of the neighborhood house is especially difficult for Jonas, given that the home he knew for so long and so well is now occupied by strangers. And Mattin and Mimi are not passive strangers. They want to change everything, from the house and its surroundings to the more or less benign behavior of the Gregorys’ dogs. Indeed, the housewarming, to which Alan and Lauren are pointedly not invited, is to solicit ideas on how to remodel.
The party, a highly touted social event, becomes something quite more than that when all of the guests but one depart --- an attractive young widow who feels she has had too much to drink. She goes from being an overnight guest to a victim of an alleged assault, and passes under the radar of the local media. Alan finds himself suddenly if indirectly involved in the matter due to the fact that he has been supervising the treatment of the victim by another psychologist for some six months prior to the party. A number of matters surrounding the party and incident come together, not the least of which is the fact that Lauren, as Deputy District Attorney, is privy to some knowledge of the matters involving the supposed assault, and Sam is one of the responding officers as well.
Meanwhile, there are other complications. Diane, who is Alan’s partner in his clinical psychology practice, and her husband Raoul offer Alan and Lauren a business proposition that may well change the dynamics of his practice. They are also friends with the Snows and were present at the party in question. Alan and Lauren are dealing with Lauren’s recent episode of infidelity and ongoing difficulties with multiple sclerosis. Everyone involved in the book has knowledge and confidences that they cannot reveal or break. And more than one person has a very closely kept secret that puts someone closest to them in terrible danger, even as the pressure builds to a boiling point. The individual who is the cause of it all may profit the most from it.
I don’t think anyone has quite raised the particular issue that White does here --- I’ll be general and call it “justice” --- in such a thoughtful and illuminating matter. And lest you think that this is a treatise and nothing more, never fear. There is an intricate mystery in these pages, an intriguing one that is almost impossible to completely figure out on your own. At the close of THE LAST LIE, the mystery is revealed, but the dynamics between many of the parties --- Alan and Lauren, Alan and Sam, and Jonas and his stepparents --- may never be the same. This is a strong, smart story that is worth staying with until the very end.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 12, 2011