Liane Moriarty is a master of sustained tension. You'd think her a diabolical sadist if her novels didn't also make you wish she were a friend you could meet for coffee and a spot of gossip. But she does delight in delaying a reveal, as fans of her smash hit "Big Little Lies" know, having waited until the final pages - or frames if they watched the HBO miniseries- to find out not just whodunit, but who was dead.
Moriarty's latest novel, "Nine Perfect Strangers," is a locked-door mystery, but the mystery itself remains a mystery for much of the book. There's a general sense of foreboding that builds, but what it's building to and which of the nine is and isn't a victim is a perplexing puzzle.
The titular strangers converge on a remote luxury health resort, Tranquillum House, where they're promised not just rejuvenation, but reinvention. Many are unhappy with their physical selves. Most are recovering from emotional wounds or avoiding major life decisions. The majority arrive alone, though one couple hoping to save their marriage and another with their college-aged daughter in tow emphasize the ways in which we can be strangers even to those who should know us best.
Despite the hefty price tag of the getaway, Moriarty creates ways in for people from a variety of backgrounds, some of which require more writerly contortions than others. The socioeconomic differences matter because soon after the retreat begins the group is asked to observe a "noble silence" meant to clear everyone's heads. The silence envelops the group as it becomes increasingly clear to readers - even those who've never set an unmanicured toe in a spa - they should be bolting for the exits. As the staff begins manipulating the guests in truly bizarre ways, the strangers form opinions of the other characters based on their own assumptions, insecurities and vulnerabilities. Tranquillum House becomes a microcosm of the macro world as stress and vitriol cause the characters to fall back on habitual coping mechanisms and flock to others who might share their views.
Alternating narrators usher us through brisk chapters providing glimpses into the inner thoughts of each character. Our main guide is an author, Frances, who starts to feel like a version of Moriarty herself, though it's always dangerous to project too much of an author onto her characters. It's clear, though, that Moriarty is having a bit of fun with us throughout the book and it's through Frances that we're let in on the joke. Midway through the novel she's asked by Tranquillum House's director whether the novel she's reading is any good. "Frances thought about this. The book was meant to be another murder mystery but the author had introduced far too many characters too early, and so far everyone was still alive and kicking. The pace had slowed. Come on now. Hurry up and kill someone."
Hurry up, indeed, for, whether you enjoy this novel or find it confounding will largely come down to whether you feel you're in on the joke or that it's being made at your expense.