Book Review: Scorched Grace by Margot Douaihy

A fun mystery with a flawed protagonist!

Margot Douaihy (b. Scranton, PA) lives and works in Northampton, MA. She earned a BA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, an MA in Creative & Life Writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Lancaster University.

Douaihy is the author of the lyrical crime novel SCORCHED GRACE (Gillian Flynn Books, 2023), named one of the “most anticipated crime books” by Crime Reads and LGBTQ Reads. She is also the author of the poetry collections Bandit/Queen: The Runaway Story of Belle Starr, Scranton Lace, Girls Like You (Clemson University Press) and I Would Ruby If I Could (Factory Hollow Press).

I haven’t read a good mystery in a long time so I was excited to jump right into Margot Douaihy’s debut novel, Scorched Grace. I loved the amateur-sleuth, chain-smoking, tattooed, queer nun protagonist, Sister Holiday. This is a character who drew me in immediately, kept me hooked, and was curious about her own background and the reason behind joining the orderThe Sisters of the Sublime Blood. The more I learned about her past, the more interested I was in the story. My favorite scenes in the book were flashbacks of her life before joining the order. These are the types of characters I want to read more about. The pace was steady, the plot propulsive, and the clues were expertly placed. I loved the setting of New Orleans and could feel the sticky air in Douaihy’s vivid descriptions. The scene that sticks with me the most is the traumatic flashback image of the burning car left parked outside the bar, and who is revealed sleeping inside it. Such a shocking reveal!

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend to readers who enjoy fun mysteries with a morally grey protagonist, interesting settings, and a diverse cast of characters.

Published February 21st, 2023

Synopsis:

When Saint Sebastian’s School becomes the target of a shocking arson spree, the Sisters of the Sublime Blood and their surrounding New Orleans community are thrust into chaos.

Patience is a virtue, but punk rocker turned nun Sister Holiday isn’t satisfied to just wait around for officials to return her home and sanctuary to its former peace, instead deciding to unveil the mysterious attacker herself. Her investigation leads her down a twisty path of suspicion and secrets, turning her against colleagues, students, and even fellow Sisters along the way. And to piece together the clues of this high-stakes mystery, she must at last reckon with the sins of her own past.

Book Review: The Things We Do to Our Friends by Heather Darwent

Dark and clever, this book will leave you feeling creeped out…👀

Heather Darwent is an author based just outside of Edinburgh near the sea. Her debut novel, The Things We Do to Our Friends, will be published by Penguin in January 2023.

Since I was born and grew up in Edinburgh, this story personally appealed to me. The author’s descriptions were accurate and immersive. I loved reading about the places I frequent often when I’m home and thought it was clever how the setting was used to create an eerie suspense throughout. The Things We Do to Our Friends follows Clare who, after moving to Edinburgh for school (and to reinvent herself), juggles student life, a part-time job, a boyfriend, and most importantly, finding a new group of friends. An unusual bunch from the University befriends her, quickly inviting her into their inner circle where they enjoy lavish dinner parties and trips to the French countryside. She wants nothing more than to be accepted, to finally belong. But at what cost? When Tabitha, the leader of the group, invites Clare to be part of a secret business venture called, ‘Perfect Pieces’—a honeytrap service for cheating spouses—she accepts, no questions asked. But things quickly take a sinister turn, and Clare is left with no choice but to distance herself from the group.

The cast of supporting characters is unique, and I enjoyed trying to figure out who the real enemy was. It was obvious to me that Clare had an inner strength that was unshakable, I just didn’t expect it to be so dark. I found the scenarios in which the girls found themselves very tense, especially one particular scene set in a remote house in the highlands. A risk they took and one Clare unknowingly agreed to take part in. Afterward, the confrontation between the girls left me shocked and ultimately left the book on a very dark note—something I loved. This book is definitely more of a slow burn but I enjoyed it and was gripped throughout.

4/5⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

For readers who love revenge, dark academia, and slow-burning suspense.

Published January 10th, 2023

Synopsis:

Edinburgh, Scotland: a moody city of labyrinthine alleyways, oppressive fog, and buried history; the ultimate destination for someone with something to hide. Perfect for Clare, then, who arrives utterly alone and yearning to reinvent herself. And what better place to conceal the secrets of her past than at the university in the heart of the fabled, cobblestoned Old Town?

When Clare meets Tabitha, a charismatic, beautiful, and intimidatingly rich girl from her art history class, she knows she’s destined to become friends with her and her exclusive circle: raffish Samuel, shrewd Ava, and pragmatic Imogen. Clare is immediately drawn into their libertine world of sophisticated dinner parties and summers in France. The new life she always envisioned for herself has seemingly begun.

Then Tabitha reveals a little project she’s been working on, one that she needs Clare’s help with. Even though it goes against everything Clare has tried to repent for. Even though their intimacy begins to darken into codependence. But as Clare starts to realize just what her friends are capable of, it’s already too late. Because they’ve taken the plunge. They’re so close to attaining everything they want. And there’s no going back.

Reimagining the classic themes of obsession and ambition with an original and sinister edge, The Things We Do to Our Friends is a seductive thriller about the toxic battle between those who have and those who covet—between the desire to truly belong and the danger of being truly known.

Book Review: All Good People Here by Ashley Flowers

Suspenseful, twisted, and incredibly dark.

Ashley is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of audiochuck, the award-winning, independent media and podcast production company known for its standout content and storytelling across different genres, including true crime, fiction, comedy, and more. As CEO, she works with her team to create an overarching content strategy and vision for the network of shows and company growth. She also hosts several audiochuck shows, including top-rated podcasts like Crime Junkie, Red Ball, Full Body Chills, and The Deck. Ashley was born and raised in Indiana, where she continues to live with her husband, daughter, and their beloved dog, Chuck. She received a Bachelor of Science in Biological Services from Arizona State University. All Good People Here is her debut novel

Once I learned Ashley Flowers was the founder of true crime podcast, Crime Junkie, I was even more compelled to read her debut novel, All Good People Here, and curious as to how her professional background would influence her writing. I’m pleased to report I was very impressed with this novel! Not only are the characters relatable and well fleshed out, but the use of dual timelines is extremely effective at creating suspense and revealing their backgrounds and relationships. I enjoyed the steady pace, multiple twists, and shifting narratives, but the second to last scene was definitely the most exciting. Flowers has a natural gift for storytelling and I can’t wait to read what she publishes next.

My favorite scene was when Margot notices a photograph revealing a subtle clue she recalls from a previous conversation. The intensity immediately ramps up to an unexpected climax leaving me stunned and partly satisfied after learning who the true killer was. A shocking cliffhanger that left me wanting more.

4/5 ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy dual timelines and small-town suspense.

PUBLISHED AUGUST 16TH, 2022

Synopsis:

You can’t ever know for sure what happens behind closed doors.

Everyone from Wakarusa, Indiana, remembers the infamous case of January Jacobs, who was discovered in a ditch hours after her family awoke to find her gone. Margot Davies was six at the time, the same age as January—and they were next-door neighbors. In the twenty years since, Margot has grown up, moved away, and become a big-city journalist. But she’s always been haunted by the feeling that it could’ve been her. And the worst part is, January’s killer has never been brought to justice.

When Margot returns home to help care for her uncle after he is diagnosed with early-onset dementia, she feels like she’s walked into a time capsule. Wakarusa is exactly how she remembers—genial, stifled, secretive. Then news breaks about five-year-old Natalie Clark from the next town over, who’s gone missing under circumstances eerily similar to January’s. With all the old feelings rushing back, Margot vows to find Natalie and to solve January’s murder once and for all.

But the police, Natalie’s family, the townspeople—they all seem to be hiding something. And the deeper Margot digs into Natalie’s disappearance, the more resistance she encounters, and the colder January’s case feels. Could January’s killer still be out there? Is it the same person who took Natalie? And what will it cost to finally discover what truly happened that night twenty years ago?

Twisty, chilling, and intense, All Good People Here is a searing tale that asks: What are your neighbors capable of when they think no one is watching?

Book Review: The Last to Vanish by Megan Miranda

Suspenseful, eerie, and full of twists.

Megan Miranda is the New York Times bestselling author of ALL THE MISSING GIRLS, THE PERFECT STRANGER, and THE LAST HOUSE GUEST, a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick. She has also written several books for young adults, including COME FIND ME, FRAGMENTS OF THE LOST, and THE SAFEST LIES. She grew up in New Jersey, graduated from MIT, and lives in North Carolina with her husband and two children.

I loved the atmospheric setting in this novel. It was so isolated and creepy. But when coupled with the mysterious history—labeled by the national press as “the most dangerous town in North Carolina”—it definitely gave it a darker edge. The descriptions were rich throughout and I could clearly picture the Passage Inn and the mountains surrounding Cutter’s Pass. The same detail applied to the cast of characters who were easy to read and tell apart. Although I enjoy a faster pace, given the amount of detail in this novel, it definitely needed time to build. The misdirection and plot twists were well executed, including the end reveal which I did not see coming.

This was the first Megan Miranda book I’ve read and I loved it! I’m always excited to discover new authors and in this case, I can’t wait to read everything else she’s published so far, including her YA novels. She’s definitely on my radar and I’m so excited to see what she publishes next!

4/5 ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend to readers who enjoy a deeply atmospheric setting with a creepy history, twisty plots, and a fearless female protagonist.

Published July 26th, 2022

Synopsis:

Ten years ago, Abigail Lovett fell into a job she loves, managing The Passage Inn, a cozy, upscale resort nestled in the North Carolina mountain town of Cutter’s Pass. Cutter’s Pass is best known for its outdoor offerings—rafting and hiking, with access to the Appalachian trail by way of a gorgeous waterfall—and its mysterious history. As the book begins, the string of unsolved disappearances that has haunted the town is once again thrust into the spotlight when journalist Landon West, who was staying at the inn to investigate the story of the vanishing trail, then disappears himself.

Abby has sometimes felt like an outsider within the community, but she’s come to view Cutter’s Pass as her home. When Landon’s brother Trey shows up looking for answers, Abby can’t help but feel the town closing ranks. And she’s still on the outside. When she finds incriminating evidence that may bring them closer to the truth, Abby soon discovers how little she knows about her coworkers, neighbors, and even those closest to her.

Book Review: Things We Do in the Dark by Jennifer Hillier

Twisted, clever, and utterly satisfying!

Paris Peralta is suspected of killing her celebrity husband, and her long-hidden past now threatens to destroy her future.

I was lucky to receive early access to Jennifer Hillier’s latest psychological thriller, THINGS WE DO IN THE DARK, published July 19th, 2022. After catching numerous rave reviews online I started reading and couldn’t put it down. The novel is skilled at covering extremely dark themes and managed to keep me satisfied with an in-depth backstory and intriguing plot.

JENNIFER HILLIER is the author of the bestselling Little Secrets (finalist, Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Anthony Award), and Jar of Hearts (winner, ITW Thriller Award, and finalist for the Anthony and Macavity Awards). A Filipino-Canadian born and raised in Toronto, she spent several years in Seattle before returning home to Canada. She currently lives in Oakville, Ontario with her family.

There are so many scenes that still haunt me but one, in particular, is when Joey is sent to live with her aunt and uncle after her mother is incarcerated. The image of her lying in bed as the shadow of a figure looms in the doorway watching her sleep is so beyond creepy. And when the truth is revealed behind this encounter, and she finally gets revenge it had me racing through the chapters to the end.

I loved the skilled use of dual timelines to create depth of character and suspense. When the main reveal happened midway, everything leading up to that point felt worth it, and the pieces fell into place for me. I love clever use of structure in suspense novels, and when done correctly, it gives a novel so much more than just a story—TWDITD accomplished that and I felt like I was piecing together a puzzle. The cast of characters is diverse in this story and each one is so unique, that I was invested in every single outcome. The way Hillier shifted my feelings for Paris with each twist and turn was masterful, eventually leading me to a satisfying ending I was definitely ready for. I loved that there was more than one mystery to this story too. It kept my attention and the pages turning.

This was the first Jennifer Hillier book I’ve read and did not disappoint. I’m so excited to have discovered a new author who’s not afraid to write about the disturbing things that keep us awake at night. She’s definitely one to watch going forward and I can’t wait to read what she publishes next!

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend to readers who enjoy complex psychological suspense, family drama, and compelling female characters.

PUBLISHED JULY 19TH, 2022

Synopsis:

When Paris Peralta is arrested in her own bathroom—covered in blood, holding a straight razor, her celebrity husband dead in the bathtub behind her—she knows she’ll be charged with murder. But as bad as this looks, it’s not what worries her the most. With the unwanted media attention now surrounding her, it’s only a matter of time before someone from her long-hidden past recognizes her and destroys the new life she’s worked so hard to build, along with any chance of a future.

Twenty-five years earlier, Ruby Reyes, known as the Ice Queen, was convicted of a similar murder in a trial that riveted Canada in the early nineties. Reyes knows who Paris really is, and when she’s unexpectedly released from prison, she threatens to expose all of Paris’s secrets. Left with no other choice, Paris must finally confront the dark past she escaped, once and for all.

Because the only thing worse than a murder charge are two murder charges.

Book Review: The Lies I Tell by Julie Clark

The Lies I Tell by Julie Clark is a twisty, fierce domestic thriller.

The story follows two complicated women, fueled by revenge as they navigate the glitzy Los Angeles landscape in search of those who wronged them. I always enjoy domestic thrillers with strong female protagonists and this book checked all the boxes. Clark has created two very compelling characters with unique backgrounds that kept me frantically turning the pages. I found both Meg and Kat believable and likable (in their own ways), as the story gripped me throughout, carrying me to a satisfying end.

One of my favorite scenes described a TV in the background, broadcasting images of women marching in the street and holding up signs displaying the MeToo hashtag as both protagonists confided in each other regarding past experiences. It was a powerful tool to use, highlighting themes of sexual trauma that drive the plot. I found the pace steady, naturally ramping up toward the end. Clark’s writing style is vivid and impactful, her voice extremely compelling, pulling me inside the character’s minds where I found myself rooting for each of them.

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy a steady pace with strong female protagonists, and a highly entertaining thriller that isn’t too dark.

Synopsis:

Meg Williams. Maggie Littleton. Melody Wilde. Different names for the same person, depending on the town, depending on the job. She’s a con artist who erases herself to become whoever you need her to be—a college student. A life coach. A real estate agent. Nothing about her is real. She slides alongside you and tells you exactly what you need to hear, and by the time she’s done, you’ve likely lost everything.

Kat Roberts has been waiting ten years for the woman who upended her life to return. And now that she has, Kat is determined to be the one to expose her. But as the two women grow closer, Kat’s long-held assumptions begin to crumble, leaving Kat to wonder who Meg’s true target is.

Book Review: Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian

Lightning-fast and whip smart. A fresh take on the genre.

Never Saw Me Coming is Vera Kurian’s debut novel, published September 7th, 2021, by Park Row Books. Kurian is a scientist first, novelist second. Per her bio, she’s spent time on both US coasts but now lives in her hometown of DC, which mirrors the setting of her novel.

I was immediately drawn in by the premise of the book: eighteen-year-old Chloe Sevre earns a full scholarship to Adams college when she agrees to participate in a clinical study on psychopaths. It’s new, it’s interesting, and I love unreliable female narrators. Once first introductions were over, the story hits the ground running and drops a couple of bombs in the first 50 pages (my favorite) including, the fact that Chloe is on a revenge mission to kill a childhood ‘friend’, and if that’s not shocking enough, one of the other students in the study is found murdered. After that, the pace continues full speed and we see Chloe teaming up with two other students—Andre and Charles, also participants in the psychopathy study—as they try to figure out the motive behind who is targeting them and why.

But can you really trust a psychopath?

For a debut, Never Saw Me Coming is long in length (389 pages) but since the chapters are relatively short it never slows in pace. I found myself racing through each new chapter as the POV alternated between Chloe (18 year-old hot girl next door), Charles (privileged, handsome, rich kid), and Andre (a student with a troubled past hiding a big secret). Each character is interesting, unique, and complex, bringing their own personal set of traits to the table. Kurian did an amazing job at displaying the nonchalant and calculative tendencies psychopaths are described to exhibit in textbooks to the page, specifically in chapter 47 where I found myself gliding through a particularly gruesome scene with ease, narrated by Chloe, in which I had to pause and go back, shocked at how cold and detached she was. The tone was executed perfectly and it sent shivers down my spine!

One of the things I love the most about this book is how fresh the story idea is. I have read and enjoyed numerous books featuring unreliable narrators for one reason or another, whether it’s addiction, trauma, or straight-up deceit, but it’s not often I read about a diagnosed psychopath who is not only unashamed but openly proud to admit it. And the fact that she’s not the only one makes for a very suspenseful read with an even more interesting cast of characters. The only downside is that sometimes I found it a little hard to follow all of them, nevertheless it’s an expertly plotted novel.

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy psychological thrillers, dark academia with a wide cast of characters, lightning-fast pace, and unreliable narrators.

Published October 17th, 2018

Synopsis:

You should never trust a psychopath. But what if you had no choice?

It would be easy to underestimate Chloe Sevre… She’s a freshman honor student, a legging-wearing hot girl next door, who also happens to be a psychopath. She spends her time on yogalates, frat parties, and plotting to kill Will Bachman, a childhood friend who grievously wronged her. 

Chloe is one of seven students at her DC-based college who are part of an unusual clinical study of psychopaths—students like herself who lack empathy and can’t comprehend emotions like fear or guilt. The study, led by a renowned psychologist, requires them to wear smartwatches that track their moods and movements.

When one of the students in the study is found murdered in the psychology building, a dangerous game of cat and mouse begins, and Chloe goes from hunter to prey. As she races to identify the killer and put her own plan for revenge into action, she’ll be forced to decide if she can trust any of her fellow psychopaths—and everybody knows you should never trust a psychopath.

Book Review: A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

I can’t remember the last time I read a book in under 48 hours.

I’m the kind of reader who, when enthralled with a book, do one of two things: speed read to the end, or savor it for months. Regarding this particular story, it was the former.

A Slow Fire Burning is Paula Hawkins’ third book and was published August 31st, 2021, by Penguin. It’s a standalone novel, and you don’t have to have read her other books to enjoy it. The story takes you through the lives of three women, who seem disconnected at first, but as the story progresses, their backstories are intricately woven together throughout the plot, revealing a dark past that leads directly to murder. Who are these women? How do they know each other? And what underlying issues are they all dealing with?

This isn’t simply a whodunnit. In fact, there is a little something for everyone. It deals with trauma and survivor’s guilt, revenge, female relationships, and even features a book within a book. Shout out to my favorite character, Irene, who is the quintessential little old lady living next door who turns out to be the story’s, Miss Marple. I loved how observant, empathetic, and forgiving she is, always trying to help others and do the right thing. She was also (in my opinion) the most underestimated character, holding all the hidden pieces of the puzzle until the very end. The writing is razor-sharp and expertly plotted.

I may have read this book fast but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was fast-paced. In fact, the momentum of the story was steady and slow-burning (much like the title) until the big reveal. And when I finished the book, it felt like I’d read three stories in one, given the level of detail surrounding each character and how my feelings had changed toward them. I found it so enjoyable I couldn’t put it down and there wasn’t a moment when I found my mind wandering—something that happens on the regular for me, unfortunately. As a writer myself, it was definitely a book that made me sit up and take notes. I felt excited, inspired, and could have read it all over again!

5/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to readers who love depth of character, steady-paced plot, and edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Published August 31st, 2021

Synopsis:

The story takes us to Islington, north London, where a young man is found on a houseboat with his throat cut. Three women hold clues to the truth. Laura is the troubled one-night-stand last seen in the victim’s home. Carla is his grief-stricken aunt, already mourning the recent death of yet another family member. And Miriam is the nosy neighbor clearly keeping secrets from the police. And they all have separate connections to the victim. Three women who are – for different reasons – simmering with resentment. Who are, whether they know it or not, burning to right the wrongs done to them. When it comes to revenge, even good people might be capable of terrible deeds. How far might any one of them go to find peace? How long can secrets smolder before they explode into flame?

Only Murders … In My Old Neighborhood

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been glued to your screen every Tuesday night since August 31st along with every other Hulu subscriber to watch one of the most entertaining shows on TV. Only Murders In The Building starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez has been one of my favorite series of 2021, and I’m ecstatic a second season has been approved for next year. One of my favorite things about the show, aside from its hilarious star-studded cast, is its affectionate tribute to the Upper West Side. Capturing the macabre humor and stunning architecture that exists between the Hudson River, Central Park, Columbus Circle, and Morningside Heights.

The building, as seen on the show, is not actually called The Arconia. The pre-war structure, which was completed in 1909 and is located on West 86th and 87th (the size of an entire block), is called the Belnord. A building I passed by (and fantasized about living in) regularly on my walks around the neighborhood, its location a mere six blocks from my old apartment. For a little under $5 million dollars, you could call this place home and relish in its glamorous 13 stories of rich history.

The Belnord’s location, like many other buildings on the Upper West Side, holds a long sordid history of murder and hauntings that span back over the 19th century. A theme reflected throughout Hollywood in movies and shows like Rosemary’s Baby, Ghostbusters, and The Night Of which continue to depict the stark contrast of one of the most beautiful locations where horrific things can and do still happen. From seances and psychics in the basement of the Ansonia on Broadway (sounds a bit like Arconia, I know) to 455 CPW—a once cancer hospital turned abuse-ridden nursing home turned luxury condominium building to the disembodied voices and childlike apparitions at the Dakota (noted as one of the most haunted locations in NYC to live). John Lennon even attested to seeing the ghostly presence of a weeping woman there before he was shot and killed outside the building on the street. Now residents have reported seeing his spirit roaming the halls of the building—yeesh!

In the 1930s and 40s, the Upper West Side became a sanctuary where those fleeing Naziism settled after the war, provided they could disclose an affidavit from an American relative. The Eclair bakery on West 72nd street became famous for its guestbook, where newly arrived refugees would sign their names and perform a frenzied search for the names of loved ones they hoped had made it out.

Scene outside the Dakota after John Lennon was murdered.

Setting the supernatural aside for a moment, some of the grisliest murders I’ve ever read about have occurred in this somewhat suburban neighborhood so many New York families call home. A few so shocking they still resonate with me to this day. And unlike on TV, the outcome is rarely ever satisfying, but rather more surreal.

The Killer Nanny

Yoselyn Ortega—nanny to three young children murdered two of them in 2012 when they were under her care. She was finally sentenced to life in prison in 2018. Victims, Lulu, six, and Leo, two, were the two members of the Krim family left with Ortega, while Nessy, their three-year-old sister was out with their mother at the time.

Ortega, who was supposed to take the two kids to Lulu’s dance class, decided instead to go back to the apartment on West 75th street. She lead the kids into the bathroom where she proceeded to use a pair of kitchen knives to stab and slash both of them to death before placing their bodies in the bathtub. Mom, Marina Krim, walked in right as Ortega turned the knife on herself, thrusting it into her wrists and throat.

Neighbors reported hearing Marina’s screams echoing throughout the building after the grim discovery. Father, Kevin Krim, was out of town on a business trip at the time of the murders and was met at the airport by the police who escorted him directly to the hospital where his wife was being treated for shock.

Ortega “told a psychiatrist hired by her defense that she was following the commands of the devil,” but later undermined her own statement “denying hearing any instructions from Satan in video interviews shown to the jury.” Her motives for the crime remain hidden inside a twisted and delusional mind.

A Tragic Murder Suicide

When people saw Yonathan Tedla jogging around the Upper West Side, they knew him as a friendly neighbor with a beautiful wife, Jennifer Schlecht, and an adorable five-year-old daughter called Abaynesh. For eight years, they’d been seen as outwardly happy, chatting, and smiling as they left for work and school during the weekdays. They’d even dress up for Halloween and go door to door, with Tedla carrying his daughter up on his shoulders. “When you saw them, they were a happy couple. Funny dude, always smiling,” one neighbor said. “It’s just unbelievable. They were an adorable family. Absolutely adorable. I never saw them fight — ever,” another concurred. But that’s not what the police found when they entered the third-floor apartment on West 121st Street in November 2019.

And things were intense behind closed doors. Three years previous, Jennifer obtained a temporary restraining order against her husband after he threatened and harassed her. The couple had met ten years prior at Columbia when she was studying for her master’s degree in social work and public health and Tedla was working there as an IT freelancer. Schlecht worked in Namibia with the Peace Corps for over a year before refocusing her career in the area of maternity and child health and had over 15 years of experience in international relief and development.

Jennifer Schlecht’s father, Kenneth Schlecht, stated the couple’s marriage began to deteriorate shortly after the birth of their daughter. “She was in tears, said her husband had indicated that if she served him with divorce papers he would ruin her or take them all out.” And it’s noted Tedla threatened his wife specifically when she mentioned divorce. Unfortunately, when she finally made the choice to leave him it was already too late.

A 4- to 5-inch serrated knife was identified as the murder weapon.

A week before the murders, Tedla was spotted by coworkers who stated, “He was a nice guy, but strange.” Jennifer was about to obtain an order of protection from the courts, but she never made it in front of the judge. And when police arrived at the scene after responding to a nervous call from the victim’s brother, they were met with a gruesome and tragic scene.

When officers entered the residence they found Jennifer Schlect’s body lying dead on the bathroom floor, her decapitated head in her lap. Upon searching the remainder of the apartment, they found Abaynesh, with a gash so deep to her throat she was left headless, inside a gore-spattered bedroom. Tedla had hung himself with a rope from the child’s door.

Don’t Trust Your Neighbors

I moved apartments on October 1st, 2018, from the Upper East to the Upper West side. At that time, I lived on the edge of Riverside Park, a short walk to the subway, in the heart of the Historic District and the bustling end of Broadway. Three weeks after settling into my new apartment, a notification flashed across my phone screen. A woman had been found murdered less than a three-minute walk from my front door in a neighboring building. But not like you’d imagine a regular NYC-style murder: strangled by an ex-lover, shot while being robbed, stabbed on the subway. No. This woman was found inside her own apartment with her throat slit.

THE KILLER LIVED INside THE BUILDING

I remember feeling a sense of anguish that something so gruesome could happen this close to my new place of residence. Especially considering it was one of the nicest areas of the city I’d ever lived in. Something came over me and I couldn’t help but go and look for myself. Like everyone who lives in New York City for a certain length of time, you become jaded toward terrible things since they happen constantly. I needed more details in order to feel safe and somewhat in control (I know that sounds insane). I made the three-minute walk around the corner from my building to the street and was immediately met with streams of police tape cordoning off the entrance to 710 West End Avenue. There was a small crowd of people including NYPD, journalists, and passersby all waiting for answers.

710 West End Avenue
The Girl Next Door

On October 17th, Anya Johnston, 24, was filed as a missing person. Her mother, Isabel, hadn’t heard from her for hours and grew concerned until she received a call from her daughter explaining she’d be home soon and that she’d gone for a walk.

At 10:30pm that same day, police officers arrived at Anya’s apartment on the 15th floor where she and her mother sat waiting for them. When asked where she’d ventured off to, she replied that she’d taken a long walk to the Brooklyn bridge but returned because it was too cold and she’d had a long day. When asked to elaborate on what ‘a long day’ meant, Anya said she didn’t want to comment saying “Well, I’m not sure what your version of the events are. So, I don’t, I don’t really know what to say. I don’t want to say a damn thing.”

They responded by telling her she was going to be transferred to a hospital, where she went without protest, arriving at Mount Sinai West’s psychiatric unit.

Anya Johnston.
The Bird Lady

To her neighbors, Susan Trott, 70, was an annoying tenant whom they wanted to evict from the building, but to her closest friends and colleagues, she had the biggest heart, with an even bigger personality. One friend fondly described her as, “A tornado kind of person.”

Trott, who’d lived in her apartment for over ten years, owned two rescue dogs (both elderly) and would take them out in the middle of the night to pee, which regularly prompted fights with other tenants. They complained she didn’t use leashes and that the dogs were aggressive. Another fight ensued when she purchased a vacant apartment next to her own and would have friends stay there. Some neighbors complained that she was illegally renting the apartment out, spurring the board’s anger. Another fight was over how she carried a loaf of bread or a bag of birdseed around to feed pigeons on the corner of West End Avenue and in Riverside Park. 

Friends of Trott’s stated, “she had gotten into altercations – at times physical – with neighbors over the past decade.” And, “She was attacked over her apartment and love of animals.” Despite the animosity, she refused to move.

Trott was a successful copywriter and major player in the advertising industry for decades, working for firms including BBDO, J Walter Thompson, McCann-Erickson, Satchi & Satchi, and Y&R and for brands like Levi’s, Nickelodeon, Ambien, Virgin Atlantic, and Air Canada. She ran her own ad company out of her apartment. She split her time between London and New York and owned an apartment in Manhattan as well as a home upstate.

Susan Trott.

When Eric Boscia, a long-time friend, and colleague of Trott’s, failed to reach her by phone on Sunday, October 21st, he was concerned and contacted police to request a welfare check. Officers responding to the call entered Trott’s residence in the early hours and discovered a trail of blood leading them through the apartment to the bedroom. There they found the unconscious and unresponsive body of a 70-year-old female, clothed, and laying on her back. Upon closer inspection, they noted a deep laceration to her throat.

The apartment wasn’t in disarray, and there was no sign of forced entry so police surmised Trott had let her killer in and may have even known them. There was also no sign of the murder weapon in her apartment, nor was there a clear motive. However, after speaking with neighbors it became clear that Trott wasn’t a very popular tenant, and that, according to some of her friends, she’d had issues with a particular woman in the apartment above hers on the 15th floor.

All Evidence Pointed Upstairs

Once forensic units descended onto the crime scene, the trail of blood was discovered in footprints leading from the crime scene, into the hall, and up a flight of stairs. It quickly leads investigators directly inside a 15th-floor apartment belonging to neighbors, Isabel and Anya Johnston. Anya, who, three days prior had been admitted to a psychiatric unit. Officers searched Anya’s apartment, looking for evidence but were unable to find a weapon matching the incision marks on Trott’s body. Carpet swatches were cut out and submitted for testing. NYPD also confiscated, among other things, a jacket, some pants, and a pair of Converse All-Star sneakers from Anya’s apartment, which were later matched as having Susan Trott’s DNA profile all over them. Reports also indicated that the right Converse sneaker “was consistent” with the impressions made on the carpet in Trott’s apartment.

Johnston was arrested and immediately transferred from Mount Sinai West to the psychiatric unit of Elmhurst, and once her medical status stabilized she was sent to Rikers. But her mental health has remained a pivotal aspect of the case, with her defense attorney claiming Anya has “an extensive mental health history, going back probably 20 years.” He confirmed reports that Anya was adopted from a Russian orphanage as a preschooler and later attended Winston Prep, a private school in Chelsea for students with learning disabilities. He confirmed they would be exploring a defense of insanity regarding the case.

The question of motive continues to perplex the public. Initial media reports mentioned the notion of Anya possibly being caught in the act of burglarizing Susan’s apartment, but the indictment has no burglary-related charges. Boscia, Susan’s friend stated, “Sue never mentioned [Anya] by name, but had said a woman was assaulting her and had been stealing from her. If Anya was in the midst of a theft when the confrontation happened, Boscia believes that Susan would have been sensitive to Anya’s agitated state.

M48 Cyclone knife.

And there’s the question of the murder weapon. According to court records, Anya’s Amazon purchase history reveals she bought an M48 Cyclone knife, the same type of weapon the coroner stated made the unusual tunneling lacerations to Trott’s throat. But the knife itself was never recovered. And nobody really knows what transpired between the two of them. There are those in the building that feel awful for Isabel, Anya’s mother, stating “Sue and Isabel [knew] each other for decades…and [had known] Anya ever since her mother adopted her.” When asked specifically about Anya, she was described as “a highly disturbed person…Anya has always had ‘issues’ according to other people in the building.”

Sadly, about a month before Trott was murdered, it has since been revealed she was planning to leave the coop for good. According to her close friend, Boscia, “She’d already found the real estate agents.” He employed the same team to sell her unit in June of 2020. “Her thought was to get either a place in the country or a pied-à-terre in the city and just travel…just enjoy her 70s.”

But were there warning signs of an impending murder? 

About a month before her death, Boscia visited Trott and she mentioned feeling uneasy about someone but didn’t want to get into specifics, dismissing his concern with a wave of her hand. “She was like, ‘Next. It’s fine, it’s fine.’”

Anya Johnston remains at Rikers in pre-trial custody, having been indicted for second-degree murder. The case is still open and pending trial.

Book Review: Survive the Night by Riley Sager

Riley Sager’s fifth thriller—Survive the Night—is a must-read for anyone who loves nineties-era-nostalgia. From grungy music and classic horror movies to muscle cars and dingy roadside diners; this book brought the thrills of the big screen alive on the page for me. Charlie Jordan—college student and movie buff—accepts a ride from a stranger she meets at the ride board at school. After her best friend was brutally murdered, Charlie’s desperate to leave college and get back to Ohio, leaving the mess of traumatic memories behind her. But not long into the journey, Charlie starts to suspect her driver, Josh, isn’t who he says he is. Could she really be riding alongside “The Campus Killer”?

I’m a huge fan of anything nineties but particularly love the films created in that era. A few of my favorite examples are Silence of the Lambs, Cape Fear, Seven, Misery, The Bone Collector, Kiss the Girls. After reading a LOT of books based on serial killers, when I read the premise of Sager’s fifth thriller I was definitely intrigued. So many authors have covered the same theme so I wanted to know what could possibly be different this time. I can confirm one thing Sager does extremely well is turn a simple story idea into something genuinely original. I was pleasantly surprised with the story of Charlie Jordan and her mysterious driver, Josh Baxter, who set off on a page-turning journey into the night that made me stay up past midnight racing to the end just to find out what happened.

The plot was fast-paced and kept me glued to the page. I loved the cast of characters, especially the independent protagonist Charlie, who is courageous, smart, and has a passion for horror movies. I felt like I was sitting in the passenger seat along for the ride the entire time, as if the book was a movie playing out in my mind (similar to the story’s protagonist). And with the plot advancing at break-neck speed, I was kept guessing at the end of each chapter. One of my favorite scenes sees Charlie and Josh stop at a diner along the way, set in a remote location miles from the campus where they left from. It’s one of the most pivotal moments in the book without the reader realizing it. All the details of the scene, from the greasy food to the dirty restrooms, were so vivid and the suspense between the characters was palpable. I caught myself holding my breath in many of the scenes, waiting for the truth to reveal itself.

One of my favorite things about Sager’s books is that they’re all completely different from one another. There is no correct book to start with so just dive into the one that speaks to you first.

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend Survive the Night to readers who enjoy everything nineties, movie references, strong female protagonists, and twisty, slow-building suspense.

Published June 29th, 2021

Synopsis:

It’s November 1991. Nirvana’s in the tape deck, George H. W. Bush is in the White House, and movie-obsessed college student Charlie Jordan is in a car with a man who might be a serial killer.

Josh Baxter, the man behind the wheel, is a virtual stranger to Charlie. They met at the campus ride board, each looking to share the long drive home to Ohio. Both have good reasons for wanting to get away. For Charlie, it’s guilt and grief over the shocking murder of her best friend, who became the third victim of the man known as the Campus Killer. For Josh, it’s to help care for his sick father—or so he says.

The longer she sits in the passenger seat, the more Charlie notices there’s something suspicious about Josh, from the holes in his story about his father to how he doesn’t want her to see inside the trunk. As they travel an empty, twisty highway in the dead of night, an increasingly anxious Charlie begins to think she’s sharing a car with the Campus Killer. Is Josh truly dangerous? Or is Charlie’s jittery mistrust merely a figment of her movie-fueled imagination?

One thing is certain—Charlie has nowhere to run and no way to call for help. Trapped in a terrifying game of cat and mouse played out on pitch-black roads and in neon-lit parking lots, Charlie knows the only way to win is to survive the night.