Book Review: The First to Lie by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Bestselling and award-winning author and investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan delivers The First to Lie, another twisty, thrilling cat-and-mouse novel of suspense that will have you guessing, and second-guessing, and then gasping with surprise.

Investigative reporter/bestselling author Hank Phillippi Ryan carries a long tradition of excellence. She’s won 37 Emmy Awards (yes, 37) and dozens of other accolades and honors for her work in television and has become a mainstay in the crime fiction community since debuting with 2007’s Prime Time. Eleven books later—including the Charlotte McNally and Jane Ryland series as well as the critically acclaimed standalones Trust Me (2018) and The Murder List (2019)—she’s now garnered five Agathas, three Anthonys, the Daphne, and a Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her newest, The First to Lie, seems destined for similar distinction.

As the story opens, up-and-coming investigative reporter Ellie Berensen has moved from small-town markets to Boston, where she hopes to be part of the New Channel 11 team. But to earn her spot, she needs a breakout story—and she thinks she’s found one in the alleged malfeasance of a big pharma company. Pharminex, presided over by the powerful-if-tragic Vanderwald family, manufactures the drug Monifan, which is used off label for treating infertility; despite the highly publicized success stories, there’s insider knowledge that one of the side effects is a permanent inability to conceive. This is the stuff that journalism careers are made of—and the stuff that certain people might kill to keep quiet.

The Geometry of Suspense

Meanwhile, the enigmatic Nora Quinn has managed to get herself hired as a sales rep for Pharminex and plans to do a little stealth work of her own. But when deadly “accidents” start to befall her new co-workers and acquaintances, she finds herself in a precarious position, not knowing who to trust or where to turn. Ellie, too, is conflicted about how best to proceed—and her overeager assistant producer Meg’s impetuousness complicates matters further. Not only are they lacking firm corroboration for the story, but the Vanderwalds are due in town shortly to receive a prestigious humanitarian recognition. Where’s the justice in that?

Ryan nimbly alternates perspectives and timelines throughout the narrative. In addition to contemporary figures Ellie and Nora, she presents backstory through the introduction of Brooke and Lacey, one of whom was born into the Vanderwald family and the other of whom married into it. Despite their outward differences, these women have more in common than anybody would suspect—and their stories add emotional resonance while also serving to bride past and present. Consequently, there’s a dizzying game of cat and mouse afoot in which neither the cat nor the mouse is clearly defined. This limbo state is nicely mirrored by the author’s rendering of Boston in March, when a pervasive sense of volatility reigns.

The First to Lie is another standout for Hank Phillippi Ryan, whose impressive pedigree lends itself brilliantly to authentic, nuanced storytelling. While big pharma provides the jumping-off point, this is, at its core, an intimate tale of deception and duplicity: the lies we tell ourselves and others—and what we’re willing to do, and who we’re willing to become, to reveal the ultimate truth. Be forewarned: Do not pick up this book if you have imminent plans to do anything but read.

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