In Bayview High, possession of a cell phone in chemistry lab is punishable by detention, so students are careful to leave their phones in their lockers. It’s thus surprising that at 3 o’clock one September afternoon, five students each serving detention for cell phone possession,meet in the chemistry lab, to write a 500-word longhand essay on the way technology is ruining American high schools. In minutes, they discover they’re victims of a prank: all five don’t own the cell phones they’re accused of bringing to class. Who would do this? And why them? They have almost nothing in common: Bronwyn is assumed to be the next valedictorian; Addy is Homecoming Princess; Cooper is a star southpaw pitcher; Nate is on probation for drug dealing; and Simon is the creator of “About That,” an app that circulates school gossip so destructive that some of its targets have dropped out, and one has attempted suicide. During the detention, Simon gets a drink of water from the tap. The others write on, but are disturbed by a crash in the parking lot outside. Everybody, including the teacher, rushes to the window. Coming back, they chat a little, Simon drinks his water – and falls to the floor, wheezing and convulsing. Knowing Simon has a peanut allergy, the students hunt for Epi pens, first in Simon’s backpack, then in the nurse’s office, but there are none to be found. The ambulance arrives; the stunned students leave. Within an hour, word circulates that Simon is dead. And soon thereafter, the police find that the next day’s “About That” was going to reveal secrets about all the remaining four - secrets so damaging that they threaten one long-time romantic relationship and three future careers. The police (and the media) conclude that either the four colluded to kill Simon, or one of them did. All of them deny it. Which means one of them is lying.
The four students narrate the book in relatively short entries that reveal their confusion and anxiety as the police marshal circumstantial evidence against one of them after another. Their lives are suddenly dominated by lawyers and fellow students who no longer talk to them. But worse than that, they are haunted by the knowledge that the charges leveled in Simon’s post – a post that finds its way into the media – are true. With one exception, they have to live with the knowledge that they have disgraced their proud parents and that they have faced the truth about themselves only as a result of public notoriety. Their humiliations emerge only slowly, and it’s hard not to sympathize with the resulting agonies. But lurking behind this sympathy is the readers’ increasing knowledge that Simon’s murder was planned with chilling, meticulous, almost professional care.
This is a very cleverly written book, well worthy of its place on The New York Times young adult fiction best-seller list. The plot moves quickly, but not at the expense of excellent character development as the four gradually disobey their lawyers’ advice and talk to each other, each gradually coming to share the reader’s unwillingness to believe that the others could have planned the murder. Which of these kids could possibly have done this? How, apart from stating their innocence time after time, can they prove they aren’t guilty? Don’t ruin the book for yourself by skipping ahead to the last 20 pages to find the answer. Trust McManus to reveal the murderer at her own pace, even if that means staying up all night.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.