Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Elston uses this principle to full advantage as not only is the reader left wondering what Evie’s next challenge will be, so is Evie.
Her initial obstacle originates with Ryan’s friends. The close-knit group have traded their “Greek letters for Junior League memberships,” and they are suspicious of Evie. She’s crafted herself into a scintillating blend of a woman who is “a little bit bohemian, a little bit hippie,” targeted to shake up Ryan’s predictable existence just enough to cement her inclusion. And it’s working. But is Evie a stone-cold con woman or a grifter with a heart of gold?
Nobody challenges Evie with the fervor of Ryan’s attorney, Rachel Murray. Rachel wants to know which small town outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Evie is from — and every place she’s been in the 10 years since high school. Elston provides fascinating insight into the mind of a con artist as she details the mental acumen required to create enough of an online presence to support Evie Porter’s existence, all while concealing the gaps in her backstory.
Evie leaves nothing to chance. From maintaining hypervigilant awareness of her surroundings, to predicting her next surprise, to executing Mr. Smith’s assignments with no knowledge of the endgame, Evie is constantly in anticipation mode as the tension ratchets up. Added pressure comes from the knowledge that success is her only option after botching her last job. She fears for her future were she to make another mistake.
Elston skillfully weaves Evie’s past into her present to build suspense. A cool girl who’s easy to root for, Evie becomes increasingly fascinating as revelations of her past cons indicate she doesn’t always implement Mr. Smith’s mandates.
A complication arises from an unexpected place when a neighbor comments on Evie and Ryan’s decision to live together before marriage. “Our steps may be in a different order, but we’ll hit them all,” Ryan responds, sending Evie’s heart into a flutter — which is decidedly not her objective. As she finds herself moving from the fringes of society to the interior of a life she’s yearned for, it becomes increasingly difficult for Evie to keep her emotions in check.
Elston builds a compelling world that Evie can’t help but want to make her own. Ryan has “the kind of house you live in when you’ve finally made it.” It’s nestled on a tree-lined street and could easily provide a foundation for the fairytale Evie’s dreamed of since she was little.
Having learned as a child that the only person she could count on was herself, Evie struggles to resist falling for Ryan’s affection and the readymade future he’s eager to share. He was the perfect mark; he had a wealth of resources and no family. But as their relationship deepens, Evie grows fearful their connection could be genuine. But what’s Ryan doing at his East Texas warehouse every Thursday? And why is she even in Lake Forbing?
Believing she has prepared for every potential pitfall, Evie is unexpectedly knocked off her feet when she meets a woman at a party who could be her twin. She introduces herself with Evie’s real name and backstory.
The stakes have never been higher as Evie divides her resources between Mr. Smith’s demands and deciphering who this doppelganger is and what she wants, all without revealing her con to Ryan. Or worse, letting her guard down around his hypervigilant attorney Rachel.
As the story draws to a crescendo, Evie’s history takes center stage. A stronger rendering of her previous places of residence before coming to Lake Forbing would have provided a stronger anchor as the tale culminates. But this is a minor quibble with a storyline that coalesces with such impressive cohesion.
Ashley Elston constructs a solid red herring that successfully throws the reader off of the satisfying conclusion. “First Lie Wins” delivers a fun and unpredictable suspense ride that keeps the guessing going until the end.
“First Lie Wins”
by Ashley Elston
Pamela Dorman Books
352 pages, $28