The Only One Left: Did She or Didn’t She?

Sager Keeps Readers Guessing to the Very End

Photo courtesy Audrie Martin

The Only One Left book cover

It seems like most locales have one or two of those houses that become the fodder of urban legend. There were quite a few in my small town. I remember one “castle” in the middle of nowhere. There were two lion statues in the front posted as if they were guarding the doorway. My carload of teenage friends used to drive out in the middle of the night and swear we saw the statues moving or a light on in the abandoned domicile. (Side note: In adulthood, I went out there again and this was a large house, not anything like a castle and not anything like the place of terror it once was. Adulthood ruins all the good stuff.)

Or there was a chiropractor in town who killed his wife and chopped her into bits. We used to dare each other to drive past the house and peek in the windows. He opened a taco stand after his release from prison. Sometimes life is stranger than fiction.

Now, if you asked me to take a job at the castle or work as the chiropractor’s receptionist, I would most likely decline and never speak to you again. But what if my career options were severely limited due to rumors that I was under investigation for murder? Then I might be talked into taking the gig.

Such was the case for Kit McDeere. Kit is a home health aid who is not the most employable after an unfortunate incident involving her ill mother. So, when she is offered the job of caring for the infamous Lenora Hope at her home, Hope’s End, she finds it an offer she can’t refuse. Even though Lenora is accused of killing her entire family Lizzie Borden-style. Even though children used to chant about Lenora on the playground, she became of thing of legend. Even though Lenora was never tried or convicted in anything but the court of public opinion.

Lizzie Borden sits in a courtroom.
The Borden murder trial—A scene in the courtroom before the acquittal – Lizzie Borden, the accused, and her counsel, Ex-Governor Robinson. Illustration in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, v. 76 (1893 June 29), p. 411. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Still, Kit is obviously nervous about taking the position even though Lenora seems harmless. Time has taken its toll and she is confined to a wheelchair and mute after a series of strokes. But there are secrets in Hope’s End—secrets that have been held for more than 50 years. Of course, Kit is making it her business to get to the bottom of those secrets. Beginning with who really killed the Hope family.

Thus, begins Riley Sager’s latest thriller, The Only One Left. While this wasn’t my favorite of Sager’s novels, it certainly does satiate the desire for a solid read. Sager always has a way of harkening back to either a true crime event or a well-known horror tale without copying the story. The way he writes (and if you’ve read my reviews you’ve read me allude to this before), he gives readers the idea that they’ve heard this somewhere before without being heavy-handed about it.

This latest offering asks the reader to draw on the knowledge of the Lizzie Borden tale as we’re introduced to Lenora Hope who is said to have killed her entire family in one night after sending all the servants away so there would be no witnesses. But Kit’s backstory also smacks of true crime tales in which nurses usher their patients to the other side when they seem to be coping with too much agony. I believe the reader’s imagination also will conjure images of the dying sister in Stephen King’s Pet Semetary when reading the description of Lenora herself.

Zelda from Pet Semetary.
Poor Zelda sure did leave an impression on many of us during our first viewing of Pet Semetary.

Like all of Sager’s novels, the story is engaging from the first page. It immerses the reader into the intricate dynamics of a dysfunctional family and shows that the old adage, money can’t buy happiness, is indeed true. You become invested in Kit’s schemes to learn more about Lenora and what happened that fateful night and as the story unfolds, you find yourself holding on tight while riding the twists and turns. Sager is the master of throwing his readers off the scent of discovery and that’s what keeps the pages turning. Once you’re invested in the characters and where the story is going, you don’t want to put the book down. This is one of those that you have to clear your calendar for because when you sit down to read, you’re going to be there for a while.

So, why isn’t it one of my favorites? Does it sound weird if I say there were almost too many plot twists? Sometimes I worry that Sager is so good at what he does that he is going to overdo it much like filmmaker, M. Night Shyamalan. Remember when you went to see one of his movies after The Sixth Sense and you were more interested in what the twist was going to be than in the story itself? Sager might be walking a fine line toward that end. Not only that, but The Only One Left, had so many twists that came at you quickly in the latter portion of the book that if your mind drifted for just a minute, you might miss something integral to the endgame. I must give him credit though, some of these twists I did not see coming at all, and I’ve read all of his books so I know most of his tricks by now. He is so good at faking a turn that once you’re comfortable that you’ve figured something out, here comes the answer that was under your nose all along.

All that said, I wasn’t as invested in these characters as I have been in some of the others and would have loved to hear more of Kit’s backstory to really form more of a bond with her as she wandered into the Hope house during a hopeless situation.

Look at The Only One Left and judge for yourself. I’d love to know your thoughts. If you’re looking for a recommendation on where to start with Riley Sager, let me point you in the direction of Final Girls. But honestly, if you’re looking for a fun and intriguing read, you can’t go wrong with anything from his catalog.

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Written by Audrie Bretl Martin

Audrie Bretl Martin is a full-time communicator and a lover of all things pop culture. She holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from Augustana College and a master's degree in Strategic Communications from the University of Iowa.

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