Riley Sager, You Give Genre Fiction a Bad Name

Thoughts (Loosely) Based on the Very Silly Novel The House Across the Lake

Last week, I wanted to take some time off from deep thinking. I had been reading some heavy stuff, and it was time to lighten up. Time to relax and enjoy myself. I wanted to read a genre novel, a mystery or a thriller, something with a murder and a detective, some clues, and an evocative setting.

The setting is always part of the fun in a mystery: the weather, the roads, the landscape, and the landmarks. The setting is an essential character that can make an otherwise typical genre plot come alive.

That is why mysteries and thrillers are the only way to travel– whether you’re actually headed to the location or you’re just holed up on your couch. I’ve been to New Mexico with Tony Hillerman, Northern Ireland with Adrian McKinty, Scotland with Ian Rankin, I’ve roamed LA with Harry Bosch, I’ve been down under with Liane Moriarity . . . and these books are far more fun than non-fiction travelogues because at any moment someone might get shot or stabbed or poisoned or pushed off a balcony at Trivia Night.

It should be noted, that though these kind of books might be considered “light” reading, many of these genre authors are top-notch writers. They can produce incredible amounts of excellent narrative prose, over and over, book after book.

Elmore Leonard. That dude could pump them out like jazz solos.

The celebrated playwright David Mamet wrote a tribute to these master craftsmen:

“The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genius.”

Mamet claims: “For the past 30 years the greatest novelists writing in English have been genre writers: John le Carré, George Higgins, and Patrick O’Brian.”

Spy-craft, the criminal underworld, and the adventures of an 18th-century British naval captain. Entertaining stuff. Books like:

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. 

The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Master and Commander 

Character, plot, setting. God is in the details stuff. Cliffhangers. Sequels.

Mamet explains that genre writers write “without sentimentality” and their prose is “concise and perceptive.” Readers see the life of the characters, and the world of the setting, instead of basking in the writer’s “technique.” 

No post-modern unresolved fragmented madness. 

And while I must admit, I do love reading weird artistic elitist avant-garde post-modern literary absurdity– I just finished Jennifer Egan’s new book The Candy House and I wrote a massive post about it.

I have read (and enjoyed!) Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow– but this time around I was ready for some crisp and concise genre escapism. Something I could read without repeatedly consulting the internet for explanation of dense prose and a barrage of allusions.

So that’s what I thought I was in for when I grabbed The House Across the Lake by Riley Sager. A book to escape into. They had this book on display at my local library. The librarian ordered it and then put it in a prominent location. The taxpayers of East Brunswick paid for this book. I assumed it would be an easy, entertaining read.

A no-brainer.

No dice.

Riley Sager is a best-selling author. He has another popular novel Final Girl. Kirkus Review called Final Girl an inventive “well-crafted thriller.” The library didn’t have that one but usually, these thriller writers are pretty consistent in their craft. 

Or so I thought.

Let me cut to the chase here.

Much of this book is well-crafted . . . until it’s not.

I’m going to tell you a little about the plot but try not to get bogged down. I mainly want to use this book to explore the rules of narrative, particularly genre fiction. 

So much for turning my brain off. I should have read a Ruth Ware novel. She’s great. It would have been a blast. Roads not traveled.

Anyway, let’s get started . . .

Is genre fiction literature? 

Sure, though it’s more beholden to a particular formula. 

Is the blues music? 

Sure, but it’s more beholden to the I – IV – V chord pattern.

Also, I should warn you, this post contains spoilers. Serious spoilers. Profound, existential spoilers.

I will broadcast the impending spoilers with an “if/then” statement and then we will descend into madness. You can decide if you want to read on at that point.

I’d also like to point out that the book has sort of normal decent reviews.

Kirkus Reviews calls The House Across the Lake “a weird wild ride” that has a “fun plot, but a bit rickety” and some twists and turns. Fine. I just wanted a fun read. And I’m not necessarily blaming Riley Sager for this mess. He was just trying something, and maybe he believes deeply in the subject matter of this book. But he’s a best-selling author. He has an editor, right? And the professional reviewers need to be more blunt about what he did.

Because he broke the laws of the land, the laws of the literary landscape. 

Who will punish him? Where will he be tried?

Perhaps in the Court of the Red Queen?

Certainly not by Lauren Emily Whalen on Bookpage.

Sager is the literary equivalent of a master chef, using a deft hand to configure tasty ingredients—a complex, grieving woman with alcoholism; a missing supermodel with dangerous secrets behind her dazzling smile; and the picturesque lake that brings them together—then adding a generous pinch of pulp and a delicious surprise at the end.

This lady is either an idiot or she’s scared to say something bad about this book.

Totally conjecture, but maybe she’s banging the author? Or he’s hypnotized her? Or has her under some kind of a spell? Or he’s bribed her? All possible.

Another reason I chose this particular thriller is that it’s set in Vermont. I love Vermont. I’d like to retire to Vermont. I’d like to get up to Vermont this winter and snowboard. So this was another plus for the book.

Perhaps I should have checked GoodReads before I started reading?


Goodreads is the usual contradictory mess. You can’t rely on that place for anything.

Here’s the first review:

I’ve officially learned my lesson. This will be my last book by the author.

Pro: The cover is pretty.

Cons: Where do I even begin…

This book feels like 3 different ones shoved together. Badly.

It started with an overused trope. An alcoholic nosy woman spying on the neighbors.

Emily Fox

But this is followed by:


Haley Phlam

I’ll try not to get too bogged down, but here is the basic plot.

The plot. The book begins like Hitchcock’s Rear Window . . . although instead of a broken leg, Casey Fletcher has a broken heart. She’s a recently widowed actress and she’s holing up with a bunch of booze at a family lake house in Vermont. She’s grieving and she’s avoiding the press– she had an alcoholic breakdown during her last performance– so she’s retreated to the peace and quiet of Lake Greene. Which is a little odd since Lake Greene is where her husband died. Her husband Len went out fishing on the very lake she’s retreated to and he fell out of the boat, hit his head, and drowned.


So she drinks, morosely, and spies on the fancy house with all the windows across the lake. Her drinking doesn’t really affect her narration all that much, oddly. Her dead husband Len conveniently left behind a pair of high-powered birding binoculars. She watches Tom and Katherine Royce, the glamorous couple living in the house across the lake. They are fun to watch. It’s a window into a celebrity lifestyle. Katherine is an ex-supermodel with aspirations to be an influencer. Tom is some kind of tech-dude who created an app called Mixer.

There’s also some mention of three missing girls and the possibility of a serial killer on the loose.

Then there’s a strange occurrence– Casey sees someone drowning in the lake. She takes her boat out and it turns out to be the ex-supermodel she’s been spying on, Katherine Royce. Katherine loves to swim, despite the coldness of the water (it’s the fall and leaves are changing). Casey drags her into the boat and for a few seconds she seems dead but then Katherine convulses and comes back to life. And they become friends. Casey saved her life, and Casey needs a friend. But Casey continues to drink and she continues to spy, and she eventually sees some abusive stuff going on between Tom and Katherine. 

And then there’s a slightly suspicious hot handyman with a porn star name– Boone Conrad– who turns out to be an ex-cop. His wife also died and he’s grieving but in the opposite way, he’s not drinking at all.

One morning, Casey thinks she hears a scream. So does Boone. They become a bit of a duo, the drunken ex-actor, and the ex-cop in recovery.


Katherine disappears and Casey suspects foul play and she starts playing the detective role. I get this. I like this. It’s Rear Window stuff, but it expands.

It seems like we’re going to go somewhere dark and secretive. Casey watches and contemplates the institution of marriage.

“I was watching a married couple, which is far more complex and unwieldy.

What is marriage but a series of mutual deceptions?”

This is a line from the play she was in when she had her breakdown. Shred of Doubt. Which is about a guy slowly poisoning his wife. Ominous and all that. Very good. I’m into it.

Let’s have some poisoning.

There’s even more spying, and it brings up the whole looking through windows theme– which is more of a movie theme– the camera is showing us a window into the world of the film. In Rear Window you’re looking through a window within a window.

Something similar happens in The House Across the Lake, but Sager puts a modern twist on it. Casey is wondering what happened to Katherine, looking for clues, and Casey’s cousin/manager suggests that she look through a digital window, Katherine’s social media.

Casey didn’t think of that.

I wouldn’t have thought of that either, but it’s a great idea. 

So Casey looks at Katherine’s Instagram and sees that Katherine has gone back to New York. But then she zooms in closer on the photo and determines the picture was posted by Tom. She sees Tom’s reflection in the teapot. Superfun. Reminds me of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, when Blomkvist is examining all those photos and finding clues.

I’m in a mystery. Did he kill her? Where is she? How far is he going to go with this social media deception?

So now Katherine is really missing, and then there’s the looming Vermont serial killer and the three missing girls. And it turns out– this is revealed by the actual local detective, Wilma– that Tom is being actively investigated for the serial killings. She tells Casey this in confidence and tells her to stop screwing around, playing a detective. She could compromise the investigation.

Awesome. I’m perfectly happy with this plot.

Then there’s this moment where you find out that in the present, Casey has someone tied up, a killer– ostensibly Tom– and she’s questioning him. And she’s threatening to torture him. She’s got a knife. This drunken actress. Kind of ridiculous, but whatever. I like the flashing back and forth between past and present stuff. The detective is in the house telling Casey to stop playing detective and meanwhile, she’s got a suspect tied up in her bedroom. Entertaining, if farfetched. And I’m hoping Casey starts torturing him or something dark and sick. Why not?

Then we get back to the story at hand, the story in the past that leads up to her tying up Tom Royce. Drunk and emboldened by all the spying, Casey notices that Tom has driven somewhere and so she actually goes into the house.

Now, this is where the verisimilitude of the mystery falls apart a bit.

She just waltzes into the house? No camera? And then she just opens Tom and Katherine’s laptop and starts poking around? No code on the laptop?

I’m a high school teacher and even I can afford a security camera. Everyone has them now. Certainly rich folk would install them in a vacation house. We also have an access code on our computers. Tom is supposed to be a tech guy, would he really have an unlocked laptop?

This annoyed me– I hate it when I’m smarter than the author– but soon enough we realize Riley Sager doesn’t care about realistic details because he doesn’t give a shit about this mystery. He’s got bigger, crazier fish to fry.

So Casey sneaks into the house and immediately gets access to Tom’s laptop and . . . she sees a bunch of suspicious searches on the browser.

Searches about Boone Conrad, the ex-cop, who she learns was suspected of killing his wife– but then he was found innocent.

But still. Creepy.

Searches for why people drown in lakes.

Searches for HER husband drowning in the lake.

Searches for haunted lakes, ghosts in reflections, missing women in Vermont . . .

And searches for a story about a man who admitted to slowly poisoning his wife . . . with the same poison which was used in Casey’s play Shred of Doubt. That’s where he got the idea! Casey remembers that Tom and Katherine saw Shred of Doubt. Tom handing Katherine the particular wine glass, the swimming in the lake, holy shit, Tom’s trying to poison Katherine the supermodel, get all her money for his tech business . . . Casey has all these epiphanies from looking at the unlocked laptop . . . and then Tom comes home and she has to drunkenly escape.

So this laptop is a fairly cheesy plot device, but I’m willing to soldier on and find out the answers to the mysteries. At this point, I’m deep into the novel.

Then things get weird. HERE COME THE SPOILERS . . .

We’ve finally made it to the heart of the matter. The “if/then” statement.

Here it is:

IF you believe that we have a physical soul that resides in our body, a soul that can possibly transfer itself to other entities, a soul that can transmigrate and take over other entities, a soul that can also reside indefinitely in a body of water, THEN stop reading and go get this book.

You’ll love it. 

If you think the human soul is a crock of shit, that we’re a bunch of electrical impulses traveling through synapses, a concatenation of dendrites and neurons, firing due to various past and present stimuli, then do not read this book.

I, of course, believe the latter. That’s why we defy augury. I don’t know WHAT is going to come out of my mouth next. Neither does God. Nobody does, because I don’t have a substantial soul, mystical or otherwise.

I’m just a crazy collection of atoms in the form of a self-anointed Professor.

This mystery novel, which was firmly a Rear Window-type mystery, promising Rear Window-type revelations, quickly devolves into pseudo-paranormal insanity.

In rapid succession, we learn:

  1. Casey’s husband was the serial killer who abducted and killed the three missing girls. Casey found out about this, found some of the girls’ IDs and locks of their hair in Len’s fishing tacklebox and she confronted her husband– who had been hiding this from her . . . because it’s easy to hide serial killing from your wife?
  2. Casey engineered Len’s “drowning” in the lake– she murdered him so he wouldn’t continue killing young girls. She gave him a bunch of allergy medicine and took him out in the boat and pushed him over the side, and watched him drown.
  3. Casey doesn’t have Tom Royce tied up, she’s not interrogating him about his wife’s whereabouts– she’s got Katherine Royce tied up, but it’s not actually Katherine inhabiting the body! It’s her husband Len, his soul or presence or essence or whatever, is now inside the ex-supermodel, controlling her.
  4. Len’s soul was living in the lake and when Katherine nearly drowned, Len entered her body and slowly took it over. Like a puppet. Like Being John Malkovich.
  5. Katherine Royce’s soul is MIA and Len is controlling her supermodel body.
  6. Casey has him/her tied up like a werewolf on a night when there’s going to be a full moon. So those earlier scenes, when Casey is asking her captive things like “What have you done with Katherine?”– those scenes are purposefully ambiguous. Casey is actually asking Katherine this question– but she’s speaking to Len’s soul, which was living in the lake after Casey killed him there and then entered Katherine’s body when she almost drowned.


This is breaking the law of genre writing. Genre writing can be brilliant, evocative, smart, funny, and profound, but it relies on the formula of the particular genre.

This is a murder mystery.

You need to obey those unwritten rules. A detective, suspects, clues, a murder weapon. You can subvert these, like in Murder on the Orient Express. Everyone did it! But the culprit can’t be a ghost. Unless that’s established early.

If it’s a monster movie, we’re fine with a giant crocodile in a Maine Lake. Lake Placid. And the surprise ending can be: there isn’t just one giant crocodile in the lake, there are two! A mating pair. That’s fine. But it can’t be aliens or cancer-causing agents in the water. The monster movie Lake Placid can’t turn into the courtroom drama Erin Brockovich

This isn’t meta-fiction. It’s not Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. It’s genre fiction. You’ve got to stick to the formula. Or else this becomes a comedy. It becomes All of Me, with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin. Remember when they were trying to get Edwina’s soul back into the bowl? That’s funny stuff. But it does NOT belong in this mystery book.

I’m not sure why you have to stick to the formula, but you do.  You can downgrade to something more realistic, as long as it’s connected. There’s a great Walking Dead episode, “Infected,” where a viral epidemic hits the jail and the survivors are simultaneously fighting the zombies and the disease. This works because the obstacles are connected and conceivable. The zombies have a brain disease and the people have a people disease. What wouldn’t work as an auxiliary calamity? Dragons. Mega volcanoes. Killer bees.

But why does Hamlet work?

Hamlet is a deep psychological dive into revenge, madness, motivation, suicide, procrastination, and familial relationships.

It’s one of the greatest things ever written. But it begins with a ghost.

Ask me if I believe in ghosts.

No fucking way.

Hard no. No ghosts, no soul, no essence, no haunting. Just a bunch of electrical synapses zipping around in my skull case. Not religious, not mystical, no omens, dreams, spookiness. None of it.

If there are ghosts, manifest yourself right now and stop my heart. I dare you.

See? No ghosts. I’m still writing this.

I may not believe in ghosts, but I believe in Hamlet.

Maybe Hamlet works because Shakespeare starts with a ghost. It’s the conceit. I’ll watch Blair Witch. I love Paranormal Activities. Hamlet is far better than those stories. And I guess, like that Walking Dead episode, you can downgrade. You can start with a ghost and then become more realistic. You certainly can’t go in the other direction. You’ve got to start with the trope, start with the conceit. Then I’ll buy it. I want to buy it. I want to be entertained.

At the start of Hamlet, I identify with Hamlet’s college friend Horatio. When he’s informed about the ghost, he’s skeptical. He says, “Tush tush, twill not appear.” Like me, he’s an enlightened scholar. But then the ghost DOES appear and Horatio and the rest of the gang see it. And then Horatio sees it with Hamlet and it’s confirmed. There is a ghost stalking the grounds of Elsinore Castle.

That’s what it would take for me to believe in ghosts.

The ghost pops up one more time, in Act III. But only Hamlet can see the ghost. It’s losing power. It implores Hamlet to get revenge on King Claudius.

“This visitation Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.”

The Ghost

And then Hamlet has to take action. It’s his tragedy.

But this is not how it works in The House Across the Lake. If the book started with a ghost and some ominous prophesy about murder, and then it was a functioning murder mystery, I’d be fine with that. But the haunted lake is used as a deus ex machina to solve the mystery. Len’s soul, swimming around like a smallmouthed bass, leaps into the plot and offers the solution to the crime.

No way.

That’s cheap-ass shoddy bullshit. Embarrassing. I wouldn’t allow it in a high school creative writing class.

You’ve got a certain amount of time to solidify the genre and then you’re done. Then you’ve got to dance with the genre that brought you. Unless you’re in some fun weird surreal Salvador Dali Italo Calvino meta-fiction world or something. 

Honestly, I can’t believe someone allowed this book to be published.

Did anyone at Penguin Random House read it all the way through?

Here is the rest of this silliness.

Casey convinces Katherine/Len to go out on the boat and show her exactly where he sunk the murdered girls in the depths of the lake. Casey says if Len does this, then she’ll let him go. She can’t kill him anyway, because she’d be murdering Katherine– or killing Katherine’s body– and that’s not legal. 

Because we’re still concerned with what’s legal?

I hope you’re following all this.

Once they are out on the Lake, Casey pretends to want one last romantic moment with her husband, and she kisses the supermodel.

During the kiss, Len enters HER. And, before he can take over Casey’s body, she grabs the anchor and jumps into Lake Greene.

She’s drowning herself, on purpose, to kill herself and Len.

And then suddenly, she’s not drowning. Which would make sense, since she’s the narrator. Unless she’s narrating from the bottom of the lake, which would be entirely possible in this disaster of a story.  

And she’s fine.

Len has exited her and transferred his soul back into Lake Greene.

She half confesses to the detective, Wilma– explains that her husband was the serial killer and that she murdered him– but Wilma says there’s no reason to open the case. Justice was served and why mess with it? Of course, she doesn’t tell Wilma about the ghost soul thing inside the lake that possessed Katherine Royce the supermodel because that would sound insane. That’s a secret for her and Katherine (and Len and Tom).

Despite the months of alcohol abuse, suddenly Casey’s not an alcoholic anymore. It was all caused by the guilt of murdering her husband the serial killer– no DTs, no withdrawal or shakes or anything like that because she’s got to be in tip-top condition for the last pages of the novel.

In the last pages, Katherine realizes she felt weird BEFORE the swim in the lake where she almost drowned and was saved by Casey and taken over by Len’s soul– and so it turns out TOM WAS trying to poison her all along . . . so it IS also a half-baked, shoddy murder mystery.

The detective finds poison residue on the broken wineglass when Tom and Katherine came over to Casey’s house. 

Tom understands that Casey has figured this out and comes to kill her, but in a surprising turn of events, Casey kills Tom while they are wrestling in the water. She whacks him over the head with a five-thousand-dollar bottle of wine.

Tom sinks into the water, presumably dead . . . but then he resuscitates!

Once again, Len’s aquatic soul slithers into a lifeless body in the lake.

Once Len has taken over Tom’s body, he says something witty to Casey: “We need to stop meeting like this” and then uses his pet name for Casey, “Cee.”

So Casey knows it is Len behind Tom’s dead eyes.

Casey shatters the wine bottle on a rock, creating a jagged weapon, and stabs Tom/Len in the throat . . . and then both souls reside in the lake? 

At the very very end of the novel . . . the part titled “Later,” Casey is romantically involved with Boone, she’s stopped drinking, and she has a crazy secret with Katherine– that Len and Tom are residing in Lake Greene.

So she’s going to watch over the lake and make sure they don’t rise again . . . 


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