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‘Confessions on the 7:45′ is Lisa Unger’s master class in suspense

In the bestselling local author’s new psychological thriller, a woman’s conversation with a stranger changes everything.

It’s easy to see who Selena Murphy is. Just look at her social media and you’ll see it all: two cute young sons, a charming husband, a great job at a literary agency, a handsome home, cool family vacations. And the best nanny ever.

What you won’t see on Facebook or Insta: That charming husband lost his job and is in no hurry to find a new one, and that nanny, Geneva? As Selena has learned from quietly relocating a home security camera from the kids' bedroom to their playroom, Geneva and Selena’s husband have been having sex “on the activity rug that Selena and Graham had carefully selected together at IKEA.” Not the activity Selena had in mind.

She’s so rattled by the video that, on her train ride home from work in Manhattan to the suburbs, she talks about it to a stranger, a woman who confides a dangerous secret of her own. Those revelations set in motion a darkly urgent story in Lisa Unger’s new novel, Confessions on the 7:45. This is the 18th psychological thriller by the bestselling author, who lives in Indian Shores, and one of her most compelling yet.

Much of the book focuses on Selena’s point of view, as the fractures in her marriage and her doubts about Graham expand. A confrontation between the two leads to an epic argument. Then Selena gets a text from an unfamiliar number, asking to “continue our conversation. ... It’s Martha, by the way. From the train.”

Selena doesn’t remember giving the woman her number, but she feels a strange need to see her. Before she can respond, the cracks in her world suddenly widen: Geneva has disappeared, and the police want to talk to Graham.

Interwoven with Selena’s story throughout the book are chapters from the points of view of several other characters, some of whom seem to have no relation to her life. One of them is Anne, a beautiful, calculating young woman having an affair with a wealthy older man who realizes she hasn’t been calculating enough.

Another is Pearl, a quiet, studious teenager whose free-spirited mother, Stella, runs a failing bookstore. Men drop into and out of Stella’s life so often that Pearl tends to pay them little mind, but an earnest, helpful fellow called Charlie sticks around longer than most. Even after he’s replaced in Stella’s bed, he still works in the store, organizing and making improvements — and bonding with Pearl. Until something terrible happens.

Other chapters give the reader glimpses of Geneva, whose opinion of Graham is even lower than Selena’s is: “He was a man-baby. The world handed him a rattle he smashed on the floor when he didn’t get what he wanted. Geneva had known so many men like him in her line of work. Too many.”

Is that line of work her job as a nanny, or something else?

Confessions on the 7:45 is such a master class in suspense it’s tough to talk much about its plot without spoilers. The setup nods to the great Patricia Highsmith’s classic 1950 thriller Strangers on a Train, but Unger has her own story to tell.

With a sure hand, she gradually reveals the links between those seemingly unconnected characters, giving them new twists right into the final pages. As always, Unger is deeply interested not just in crimes and other bad acts but in what makes people commit them, exploring their immediate motivations and the forces hidden in their pasts.

Technology also plays an intriguing role, from the video and texts that set the plot in motion to something recorded on a child’s iPad that explodes a long-hidden family secret. At one point, when Selena is under physical attack, she risks her life to bring her phone with her when she flees.

For some characters in this book, eluding the web of technology that pervades our lives is a highly developed skill — their profession requires them to build new identities and shed old ones. Some people use such deceptions for clearly criminal purposes, but, this novel suggests, maybe we all con each other sometimes, with curated social media and judicious little lies that can spin beyond our control. Just how bright is the line between professional con artists and the rest of us?

[ HarperCollins ]

Confessions on the 7:45

By Lisa Unger

Park Row, 368 pages, $27.99

Book Launch

The Oxford Exchange in Tampa will host a virtual book launch for Lisa Unger’s Confessions on the 7:45 with guest Sara Paretsky (Love & Other Crimes), moderated by Times book editor Colette Bancroft, at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 6. Free; register at oxfordexchange.com/pages/calendar.

Times Festival of Reading

Lisa Unger will be a featured author at the virtual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, Nov. 12-14. If you have a question for Unger, email it with the subject line “Festival author question” to cbancroft@tampabay.com.

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