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USA TODAY BESTSELLER * MARY HIGGINS CLARK AWARD NOMINEE * 2022 BOOKPAGE BEST MYSTERIES AND SUSPENSE * LIBRARY READS TOP 10 BOOKS OF 2022 * CRIME READS BEST NEW CRIME FICTION
“Investigations are launched, fingers are pointed, potentially dangerous liaisons unfold and I was turning those pages like there was cake at the finish line.” –Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times must-read books for summer 2022
Ned Kelly award winning author Sulari Gentill sets this mystery-within-a-mystery in motion with a deceptively simple, Dear Hannah, What are you writing? pulling us into the ornate reading room at the Boston Public Library.
In every person’s story, there is something to hide…
The tranquility is shattered by a woman’s terrified scream. Security guards take charge immediately, instructing everyone inside to stay put until the threat is identified and contained. While they wait for the all-clear, four strangers, who’d happened to sit at the same table, pass the time in conversation and friendships are struck. Each has his or her own reasons for being in the reading room that morning–it just happens that one is a murderer.
Sulari Gentill delivers a sharply thrilling read with The Woman in the Library, an unexpectedly twisty literary adventure that examines the complicated nature of friendship and shows us that words can be the most treacherous weapons of all.
What readers are saying about The Woman in the Library:
“I loved this intelligent, high tension, addictive, unputdownable book so much!”
“I ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT!”
“This is a smart, well-written whodunit with an interesting cast of characters and a well-developed plot.”
“A murder mystery that starts off in a crowded library full of book lovers? SIGN ME UP!”
“What an outstanding job and literary work in the crime-fiction genre!”
Copyright © 2022 by Sulari Gentill
Cover and internal design © 2022 by Sourcebooks
Cover design by Kimberly Glyder
Cover image © kevron2001/Getty Images
Internal design by Holli Roach/Sourcebooks
Sourcebooks, Poisoned Pen Press, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks
P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Gentill, Sulari, author.
Title: The woman in the library / Sulari Gentill.
Description: Naperville, Illinois : Poisoned Pen Press, 
Identifiers: LCCN 2021023650 (print) | LCCN 2021023651 (ebook) | (hardback) | (trade paperback) | (epub)
Subjects: GSAFD: Mystery fiction.
Classification: LCC PR9619.4.G46 W66 2022 (print) | LCC PR9619.4.G46
(ebook) | DDC 823/.92--dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2021023650
LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2021023651
Excerpt from After She Wrote Him
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation with the Author
About the Author
"Open me carefully…"
—Emily Dickinson, "Intimate Letters"
What are you writing?
I expect you've started something new by now. If not, consider this a nudge from a fan. You have a following, my friend, desperate for the next Hannah Tigone. To paraphrase Spider-Man: With great readership comes great responsibility.
Seriously though, I saw An Implausible Country in the bookstore around the corner, yesterday. A place called The Rook…one of those hipster joints where you can get a half-strength turmeric soy latte, and a wheatgrass and birdseed snack with your book. Anyway, the U.S. jacket pops in the wild, in case you were wondering. Photo of it on the new releases shelf attached. I might have bought myself another copy, just so I could brag to the bookseller that I knew the author! I think she was impressed. There was a definite hint of admiration in the way she asked, "Do you need a bag?"
I so regret that I was unable to come to New York when you toured last Fall. We could have met after all these years as colleagues and correspondents. I shall make amends by crossing the seas to you in a few months, unless of course you are coming stateside. Perhaps if you were to set a book here, then a research trip might be justified? Still, there might be something fitting about a friendship based on a common love of words being founded on an exchange of the same.
As for your enquiries about how my own book is coming: Well, I spent Friday at the library. I wrote a thousand words and deleted fifteen hundred. Regardless, the Boston Public Library is a nice spot in which to be stood up by the muse. I'm afraid she's playing hard to get where I'm concerned. I had hoped that the venue might shake loose some inspiration. It's pretty spectacular—the ceiling in the Reading Room is something to behold. I'm afraid I spent rather a lot of time staring at it. I can't help but wonder how many frustrated writers have counted the decorative cornices before me… Perhaps Emerson or Alcott gazed aimlessly at that same plasterwork, or at least its equivalent in the earlier incarnation of the BPL when it was on Boylston Street. It's vaguely comforting to think that they might have.
Anyway, I look forward to hearing about your current project. As always, I'm happy to be a sounding board if you require one—to read chapters as you write, so the feedback is immediate. It'll give me something to do while I'm in this writing slump, and perhaps your productivity will rub off! And eventually, I might have something for you to read and comment on in return.
Regards and so forth,
Writing in the Boston Public Library had been a mistake. It was too magnificent. One could spend hours just staring at the ceiling in the Reading Room. Very few books have been written with the writer's eyes cast upwards. It judged you, that ceiling, looked down on you in every way. Mocked you with an architectural perfection that couldn't be achieved by simply placing one word after another until a structure took shape. It made you want to start with grand arcs, to build a magnificent framework into which the artistic detail would be written—a thing of vision and symmetry and cohesion. But that, sadly, isn't the way I write.
I am a bricklayer without drawings, laying words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, allowing my walls to twist and turn on whim. There is no framework, just bricks interlocked to support each other into a story. I have no idea what I'm actually building, or if it will stand.
Perhaps I should be working on a bus. That would be more consistent with my process such as it is. I'm not totally without direction…there is a route of some sort, but who hops on and who gets off is determined by a balance of habit and timing and random chance. There's always the possibility that the route will be altered at the last minute for weather or accident, some parade or marathon. There's no symmetry, no plan, just the chaotic, unplotted bustle of human life.
Still, ceilings have a wonderful lofty perspective that buses do not. These have gazed down on writers before. Do they see one now? Or just a woman in the library with a blank page before her?
Maybe I should stop looking at the ceiling and write something.
I force my gaze from its elevated angle. Green-shaded lamps cast soft ellipses of light that define boundaries of territory at the communal reading tables. Spread out, by all means, but stay within the light of your own lamp. I sit at the end of one of dozens of tables placed in precise rows within the room. My table is close enough to the centre of the hall that I can see green lamps and heads bent over books in all directions. The young woman next to me has divested her jacket to reveal full-sleeve tattoos on both arms. I've never been inked myself, but I'm fascinated. The story of her life etched on her skin… She's like a walking book. Patterns and portraits and words. Mantras of love and power. I wonder how much of it is fiction. What story would I tell if I had to wear it on my body? The woman is reading Freud. It occurs to me that a psychology student would make an excellent protagonist for a thriller. A student, not an expert. Experts are less relatable, removed from the reader by virtue of their status. I write "psychology student" onto the blank page of my notebook and surround it with a box. And so I hop onto the bus. God knows where it's going—I just grabbed the first one that came along.
Beneath the box I make some notes about her tattoos, being careful not to make it obvious that I am reading her ink.
Across from me sits a young man in a Harvard Law sweatshirt. He cuts a classic figure—broad shoulders, strong jaw, and a cleft chin—like he was drawn as the hero of an old cartoon. He's been staring at the same page of the tome propped before him for at least ten minutes. Perhaps he's committing it to memory…or perhaps he's just trying to keep his eyes down and away from the young woman on my left. I wonder what they are to each other: lovers now estranged, or could it be that he is lovelorn and she indifferent? Or perhaps the other way round—is she stalking him? Watching him over the top of Freud? Might she suspect him of something? He certainly looks tormented… Guilt? He drops his eyes to check his watch—a Rolex, or perhaps a rip-off of the same.
To the left of Heroic Chin is another man, still young but no longer boyish. He wears a sport coat over a collared shirt and jumper. I am more careful about looking at him than I am the others because he is so ludicrously handsome. Dark hair and eyes, strong upswept brows. If he catches my gaze he will assume that is the reason. And it isn't…well, maybe a little. But mostly I am wondering what he might bring to a story.
He's working on a laptop, stopping every now and then to stare at the screen, and then he's off again, typing at speed. Good Lord, could he be a writer?
There are other people in the Reading Room, of course, but they are shadows. Unfocused as yet, while I try to pin a version of these three to my page. I write for a while…scenarios, mainly. How Freud Girl, Heroic Chin, and Handsome Man might be connected. Love triangles, business relationships, childhood friends. Perhaps Handsome Man is a movie star; Heroic Chin, a fan; and Freud Girl, his faithful bodyguard. I smile as the scenarios become increasingly ridiculous and, as I do, I look up to meet Handsome Man's eyes. He looks startled and embarrassed, and I must, too, because that's how I feel. I open my mouth to explain, to assure him that I'm a writer, not a leering harasser, but of course this is the Reading Room, and one does not conduct a defence while people are trying to read. I do attempt to let him know I'm only interested in him as the physical catalyst for a character I'm creating, but that's too complex to convey in mime. He just ends up looking confused.
Freud Girl laughs softly. Now Heroic Chin looks up too, and the four of us are looking at each other silently, unable to rebuke or apologize or explain, lest we incur the wrath of the Reading Room Police.
And then there is a scream. Ragged and terrified. A beat of silence even after it stops, until we all seem to realise that the Reading Room Rules no longer apply.
"Fuck! What was that?" Heroic Chin murmurs.
"Where did it come from?" Freud Girl stands and looks around.
People begin to pack up their belongings to leave. Two security guards stride in and ask everyone to remain calm and in their seats until the problem can be identified. Some idiot law student starts on about illegal detention and false imprisonment, but, for the most part, people sit down and wait.
"It was probably just a spider," Heroic Chin says. "My roommate sounds just like that whenever he sees a spider."
"That was a woman," Freud Girl points out.
"Or a man who's afraid of spiders…" Heroic Chin looks about as if his arachnophobic friend might be lurking somewhere.
"I apologize if I was staring." Handsome Man addresses me tentatively. I have enough of an ear for American accents now to tell he's not from Boston. "My editor wants me to include more physical descriptions in my work." He grimaces. "She says all the women in my manuscript are wearing the same thing, so I thought… Heck, that sounds creepy! I'm sorry. I was trying to describe your jacket."
I smile, relieved. He's volunteering to take the bullet. I'll just be gracious. "It's a herringbone tweed, originally a man's sport coat purchased at a vintage store and retailored so the wearer doesn't look ridiculous." I meet his eye. "I do hope you haven't written down that I look ridiculous."
For a moment, he's flustered. "No, I assure you—" And then he seems to realise I'm kidding and laughs. It's a nice laugh. Deep but not loud. "Cain McLeod."
After a second I register that he's introduced himself. I should too.
"Winifred Kincaid…people call me Freddie."
"She's a writer too." Freud Girl leans over and glances at my notebook. "She's been making notes on all of us."
She grins. "I like Freud Girl…I sound like an intellectual superhero. Better than Tattoo Arms or Nose Ring."
I slam my notebook shut.
"Awesome!" Heroic Chin turns to display his profile. "I hope you described my good side and…" he adds, flashing a smile, "I have dimples."
Handsome Man, apparently also known as Cain McLeod, is clearly amused. "What are the chances? You two should be more careful who you sit next to."
"I'm Marigold Anastas," Freud Girl announces. "For your acknowledgements. A-N-A-S-T-A-S."
Not to be outdone, Heroic Chin discloses his name is Whit Metters and promises to sue if either Cain McLeod or I forget to mention his dimples.
We're all laughing when the security guards announce that people may leave if they wish.
"Did you find out who screamed?" Cain asks.
The security guard shrugs. "Probably some asshole who thinks he's a comedian."
Whit nods smugly and mouths "spider."
Cain's brow lifts. "It was a convincing scream," he says quietly.
He's right. There was a ring of real mortal terror in the scream. But that's possibly a writer's fancy. Perhaps someone simply needed to expel a bit of stress. "I need to find coffee."
"The Map Room Tea Lounge is the closest," Cain says. "They make a decent coffee."
"Do you need more material?" Marigold asks. With coat sleeves covering the ink which had held my attention, I notice that she has beautiful eyes, jewel green and sparkling in a frame of smoky kohl and mascara.
"Just coffee," I reply for both Cain and myself, because I'm not sure which one of us she was asking.
"Can I come?"
The childlike guilelessness of the question is disarming. "Of course."
"Me too?" Whit now. "I don't want to be alone. There's a spider somewhere."
And so we go to the Map Room to found a friendship, and I have my first coffee with a killer.
Bravo! A sharp and intriguing opening. You have made art out of my complaints. The last line is chilling. An excellent hook. I fear that a publisher will ask you to make it the opening line to ensure you catch the first-page browsers. All I can say is: resist! It is perfect as it is.
That line, though, is as brave as it is brilliant. Bear in mind that you've issued your readers a challenge, declared one of those three (Marigold, Whit, or Cain) will be the killer. They'll watch them closely from now on, read into every passing nuance. It may make it more difficult to distract their attention from clues in the manuscript and keep them guessing. Still, it's kind of delicious—particularly as they each seem so likeable. As I said, brave.
Dare I hope that since your setting is Boston, you'll make a research trip here sometime soon? It would be wonderful to suffer for our art face-to-face over martinis in some bar like real writers! In the meantime, I'd be delighted to assist you with sense of place and so forth. Consider me your scout, your eyes and ears in the U.S.
A couple of points—Americans don't use the term jumper (description of Handsome Man). You may want to switch that reference to sweater or pullover. It's also much less common in the U.S. for women to be as heavily inked as women in Australia. I haven't seen any full-sleeve tattoos on women, here. Of course, that doesn't mean Marigold can't have them—perhaps that's why Winifred notices them particularly.
I returned to the Reading Room after I received your email and chapter to check, and I'm afraid there's no explicit rule against talking. It's more a general civility. Easy to fix. Insert a disapproving shushing neighbour or two on the table and the pressure for silence won't be lost. I had lunch in the Map Room, so if you need details, let me know. As an Australian, you'll probably find the coffee appalling out of principle, but since Winifred is American, she is not likely to find it wanting.
Do you need somewhere for Freddie to live? If money is no object, you could put her in Back Bay, right in the BPL neighborhood. Many of the apartments are converted Victorian brownstones, but Freddie would have to be an heiress of some sort to afford one! Is she a struggling hopeful, or an author of international renown? The former would probably live somewhere like Brighton or Alston. Let me know if you'd like me to check some buildings for you.
I received my tenth rejection letter for the opus yesterday. It feels like something which should be marked. Perhaps I shall buy a cake. This one said my writing was elegant but that they felt I was working in the wrong genre…which I suppose is an indirect way of saying they want my protagonist to be a vampire and the climax to involve an alien invasion…and not the kind with which our President seems preoccupied!
I know the repeated rejections are a rite of passage, Hannah, but, honestly, it hurts. I don't know if I'm strong enough for this business. It must be wonderful to be at that stage where you've paid your dues, where you know that whatever you write now, it will at least be seriously considered. This stage just feels like a ritual humiliation.
Yours somewhat despondently,
I'm still a little in awe every time I step into the chequerboard foyer of Carrington Square. It's one of those Victorian brownstones for which Back Bay is famous—a magnificent gabled exterior, renovated to perfection within. My one-bedroom apartment looks out over an internal courtyard featuring landscaped gardens and cast-iron fountains. It's beautifully furnished and decorated—an address usually beyond the means of a humble writer. In the sitting room, on either side of the marble fireplace, are built-in bookcases in which are stored the works of each of the previous Sinclair scholarship winners who were writers in residence here. The collection is both inspiring and terrifying. Wonderful novels in almost every genre, crafted in the year during which the writer lived in this apartment. In the fifty or so years the scholarship has been running, the apartment has no doubt been refurbished and redecorated several times, but these bookcases remain untouched, sacrosanct. The heart and purpose of this place—sometimes I fancy I can hear it beating.
Perhaps it was the bookcases that stilled my pen in the beginning. I had thought that the words would come easily here. A time and place to write—a dream bolstered by the endorsement of the award. And yet I'd felt unworthy, uncertain. I'd choked, and in the first month I'd deleted more than I wrote. But not today.
Today I return from the library exhilarated. We had lingered in the Map Room for hours, Cain, Whit, Marigold, and I. It was bizarre, four strangers who seemed to recognize each other, like we'd been friends before in a life forgotten. We talked about all manner of things, laughed about most of it, and poked fun at each other without restraint. It felt like being at home, and I breathed out completely for the first time since I stepped on that flight from Sydney.
Cain is a published writer—his first book was reviewed by the New York Times. He doesn't tell me that last bit; I google him on the way home. The Washington Post called him one of America's most promising young novelists, and his first book was something of a sensation. Marigold is in fact studying psychology at Harvard, and Whit is failing law. The failing part doesn't seem to bother him. It is the only way, apparently, that he can avoid being absorbed into the family firm.
And so my attention is initially elsewhere when Leo Johnson crosses my path on the stairs.
Leo is also a writer in residence at Carrington Square. He's from Alabama originally, though I think he went to Harvard at some point. He holds a fellowship which seems to be the American equivalent of the Sinclair, and occupies an apartment a few doors away from mine. "How was the library?" he asks. He speaks with a gentle Southern pace that invites you to slow down and chat a while. "Get much work done?"
"How did you know I was at the library?"
"Oh, I saw you at the Map Room." He pushes his glasses back up against the bridge of his nose. "I dropped into the BPL to pick up a book I'd reserved, and then I needed coffee. I just happened to see you there. I waved, but I'm guessing you didn't see me."
"Of course I didn't, or I would have asked you to join us." Leo is the closest thing I have to a colleague. I tell him about the scream.
He laughs. "I expect it was some nutcase, or a club initiation of one sort or another. A number of the Harvard clubs are co-ed now."
I raise my brow, uncertain what that has to do with it.
"It seems like the kind of prank that would be conceived in the brain of an adolescent male," he explains. "But, of course, a woman would be required to execute it."
I smile. "You don't think women might have planned it?"
"I don't think a woman would have found it that funny… A man, however, would be delighted with his extraordinary wit."
"Remember that you said that, not me." I glance up the stairs. "Would you like to come in for a coffee?"
Leo shakes his head. "No, ma'am. There's a story-cooking gleam in your eyes. I'll leave you alone to write. Let's compare notes in the next couple of days."
I agree, relieved. I do feel an urgency to write. And I like Leo even more for the fact that he understands.
I open my laptop as soon as I get into the apartment, slipping off my shoes and nesting into the couch. I begin typing, using the monikers Handsome Man, Heroic Chin, and Freud Girl. They appear on my page like a rubbing taken from life, shape and dimension created with words. I'll give them real names later; for now I don't want to stem the ideas by trying to work out what to call them.
I dwell on the scream. It, too, has a place in this story. The four of us had talked about it at length. How could something like that be unexplained? Someone must have screamed, someone must have had a reason to. Whit brought up spiders again. I think he must have some kind of phobia.
We had all agreed to meet at the BPL tomorrow. Actually, Cain and I had agreed to meet, to form a writers' group of sorts. Marigold and Whit had decided that any group should include them, regardless of its purpose.
"We can be sounding boards," Marigold insisted.
"And inspiration," Whit added. And so it was arranged.
It is exciting to have plans, people to meet.
I turn on the television, initially for background noise. I'm working, so it's only sound. A murmur that connects me to the real world as I create one of my own, an anchor barely noticed. Until I hear the words "Boston Public Library today."
I look up. A reporter talking to a camera. "…the body of a young woman was discovered by cleaning staff in the Boston Public Library."
I close the laptop and turn up the volume, leaning forward towards the television. A body. My God, the scream! The reporter tells me nothing more of any use. I switch to another station, but the report is much the same. The body is not identified beyond being that of a young woman.
My phone rings. It's Marigold. "The news! Did you see the news?"
"That scream!" Marigold sounds more excited than frightened. "That must have been her."
"I wonder why they didn't find her then."
"Maybe whoever killed her hid the body?"
I smile. "They didn't say anything about murder, Marigold. She might have screamed because she fell down the stairs."
"If she'd fallen down the stairs, someone would have found her straight away."
That was true. "Do you think they'll close the library tomorrow?"
"Maybe the room she was found in, but surely not the whole library." Marigold's voice drops into a part whisper. "It must have been close to Bates Hall."
"I did think that too."
"We might have passed him on the way out—the killer, I mean."
I laugh, though it's possible of course. "If this were a book, we would have bumped into him at the very least."
"So we're still meeting tomorrow?"
I don't hesitate. The cleaner employed by the Sinclair Fellowship comes on Tuesdays, and I prefer to avoid the feeling that I'm in the way, or lazy or unclean, that is part and parcel of having someone clean up after you as an adult. "I'll be there. We'll at least find out if the library is closing for any period of time."
- On Sale
- Jun 7, 2022
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Hachette Book Group