Given the tragic toll of shootings at US high schools, it might seem insensitive to set a new murder thriller subgenre in these painful spaces. But Karen McManus’s 2017 debut, One of Us Is Lying – totting up 100-odd weeks on the New York Times YA bestseller list, with over 200,000 copies sold in the UK and a TV pilot in the works – prompted umpteen copycat YA titles. And she knew the appeal of picking at a wound: the villain in that book expressed chagrin that high-school shooters show “a depressing lack of imagination”.
High school has supplied a deep seam of nastiness since Stephen King’s Carrie, thanks to its toxic run-off of hormones and cliquery. The skill of McManus’s debut – in which five students are in detention and only four get out alive – lay not only in the corkscrew plotting, but in the co-opting of Tumblr, 4chan and Reddit as places where teen creeps can vent.
After a diversion to another town in 2018’s Two Can Keep a Secret, McManus has returned to Bayview High. The focus shifts to a handful of characters, many of whom are familiar. Maeve is the younger sister of Bronwyn, the star of the first book; Eli Kleinfelter, the crusading lawyer, is back with his own plot. Everyone is still reeling from recent events when rumour, deceit and death stalk the student body again. As before, an anonymous sadist is trying to manipulate people, with fatal consequences. In the first book, a gossip app spread misery and resentment. In One of Us Is Next, the narrative engine is a high-stakes game of truth or dare, conducted by text. This small town is alive with clandestine hook-ups, feckless or uncommunicative parents and resentments, and what seemed like a tragic accident starts to look like foul play. Untangling the shifting matrix of allegiances are fatherless Phoebe; Maeve, the tech-savvy leukemia survivor whose cancer is in remission (or not, as her nosebleeds start up again); and Knox, Maeve’s ex, currently interning with Eli.
Like its predecessor, One of Us Is Next suffers from one drawback: the dialogue is certainly snappy (“The. Hell?!”), but it is used indiscriminately. Although both books are told by a revolving cast of first-person narrators, everyone’s interior monologue sounds the same. It’s a small gripe: McManus keeps the juicy subplots ticking over and drip-feeds reveals as clinically as an IV tube. Teen genre fiction can so easily be awash with cliches and stereotypes, and she manages to disrupt them. She can pilot her characters to be their best selves, very often just after they have been their absolute worst.
• One of Us Is Next is published by Penguin (RRP £7.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.