The Male Mystery Author Cliché I Hate: All the Beautiful Lies, by Peter Swanson

I did something with All the Beautiful Lies that I haven’t had much luck with in the past: I went in blind. Someone recommended Peter Swanson to me, so I put one of his titles on hold on the Libby app (which is a great library app, by the way) at random and forgot about it. When I got a notification that it had downloaded, I started playing the audio without even really looking at the cover, let alone a plot description. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of going into a mystery with no preconceptions, so I wanted to see what happened. 

By the halfway point I said to myself “I bet this is written by a dude,” and I just had to look to see if I was right. I was! How did I know? Because every female character in this book is a sex object–and the only exception is a minor mother character, which gives you the idea that women can only be sex objects or mothers, and sometimes they can be both. Not only that, almost every female character has an inexplicable sexual relationship with one of the dopey dudes hanging around. The only exceptions are minor roles: a sex-object BFF who instead fills the book’s need for a victim character and the aforementioned mother figure. 

I might be able to shrug this off if it were a James Bond novel (a curious brand of hell I’m all too familiar with), but it isn’t–and these dudes are no James Bond. They’re bland stock characters with no defining traits. Well, one of them is more than a stock character (although he is still poorly defined) because he’s creepy as fuck–but creepy in a Woody Allen way, not a Hannibal Lector way. 

This is an infuriatingly common theme in pop culture and particularly in mystery novels. I had to take a break from Michael Connelly books because even though they tend to be great mysteries, their bro wish-fulfillment angle is extremely tiresome to me. They also tend to have one plot twist too many, but that’s a problem for another post. 

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I found All the Beautiful Lies to be very problematic. Beyond that, I just didn’t think it was very good. It has two–wait, three–narratives telling the story. In the main one, Harry is called home to Maine just before his college graduation because his father died suddenly by falling off a cliff during one of his routine walks. It’s not a spoiler to say that this death is suspicious because police quickly establish that they don’t believe it was either suicide or an accident. As he settles his father’s affairs and very loosely tries to solve the murder, he begins to wonder if his porn-fantasy stepmother Alice is coming onto him. The secondary plotline follows Alice as a teenager. Her mom is an alcoholic, prompting Alice and her stepfather to grow creepily (perhaps dangerously) close. I can’t say anything about the third plotline, which comes late and grows out of Alice’s narrative, because it would be impossible not to spoil anything by discussing it. 

I think I could have shrugged along with this book if the characters were more interesting. Harry is perhaps the most bland protagonist ever created in a mystery novel–and that says a lot. And even though we get a whole subplot with her backstory, Alice lacks depth and never quite makes sense to me. Her stepfather is the best thing about the book because at least he sparks a reaction, but that strictly comes from a visceral reaction to what he’s doing, not from anything nuanced the book is working out. The rest of the characters are just there. 

All the Beautiful Lies is, mercifully, a quick read. I could see it working great if you need something to get you through a commute, a plane ride, or a vacation, but otherwise I’d skip it. It’s forgettable, problematic, and just not that interesting. 

But here’s something: whenever the woman who reads the audio does a male voice, she sounds like she’s trying to be Ghostface from Scream, so that’s fun. 

All the Beautiful Lies Peter Swanson
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