Book Review: Hank Phillippi Ryan teeters on the improbable

“The First to Lie,” by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge)

The first liar we meet in Hank Phillippi Ryan’s “First to Lie” is Nora, a pharmaceutical representative whose job is to push Monifan, a drug that can increase fertility in women who have difficulty conceiving. But Nora is secretly pursuing her own agenda.

Next come Ellie, an investigative reporter, and Meg, her ethically-challenged assistant. Ellie thinks Monifan causes permanent infertility in some patients and that the manufacturer, Pharminex, has been covering it up.

Then, in a series of flashbacks, we meet Brooke, a pregnant teenage girl who can’t forgive her mother, husband of Pharminex’s owner, for tricking her into swallowing a pill that induces abortion. And Lacy, the wife of Brooke’s brother, who is having trouble conceiving and is persuaded to try Monifan—with devastating results.

By the time we are introduced to Nora’s and Ellie’s boyfriends, the reader realizes that nearly every character is lying about something and that some them are not who they pretend to be.

The story turns darker when women with knowledge of Pharminex’s deception die in suspicious accidents. As Ellie’s investigation reaches a climax, the true identities and motives of the characters are revealed in a series of improbable twists, some of which readers nevertheless are likely to see coming.

In the closing chapters, the tale teeters on the preposterous, but Ryan, a veteran thriller writer with five Agatha Awards to her credit, holds things together most of the way with her fine prose, vivid characterizations, and an uncanny ability to keep all the balls in the air.

A working investigative reporter herself, Ryan skillfully explores the consequences of deception and the dangers inherent in violating journalistic ethics. In the end, however, readers are likely to find the last few twists preposterous.

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Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, is the author of the Mulligan crime novels including “The Dread Line.”