Use Caution When Caring For a Killer
By R.G. Belsky
Riley Sager’s new thriller THE ONLY ONE LEFT is a Lizzie Borden-inspired story about a woman accused of massacring her entire family decades earlier. It even has Lizzie Borden-style chants like: “At 17, Lenora Hope hung her sister with a rope. Stabbed her father with a knife. Took her mother’s happy life.” But Sager says his book really has very little to do with the legendary Lizzie Borden tale.
Instead, it’s the story of a young woman caretaker who goes to work for this elderly, ailing woman named Lenora Hope—who everyone believes somehow got away with mass murder—and eventually uncovers shocking, long-buried secrets about what really happened to Lenora’s family in the spooky, old house where she still lives.
Did Sager do a lot of research into Lizzie for the book?
“No, none,” he laughed during an interview with The Big Thrill. “Because I knew it wasn’t going to be about Lizzie Borden. It’s inspired by her in the vaguest of ways, but I didn’t have any interest in writing a fictionalized account. I just used the myth of Lizzie Borden as a springboard.
“I wish I could remember why Lizzie Borden was on my mind, but I can’t. I normally read or see something and say ‘aha, that will be the next book.’ But in this case, I don’t know why. For some reason, though, I was thinking: what if Lizzie Borden lived to be old and infirm and needed a caretaker. Who would take that job? There’s a book there!”
Lenora Hope was only 17 when her mother, father, and sister were murdered during a bloody night in 1929, and, as the only survivor, everyone believed she was the one responsible. It is now 1983 when Kit McDeere starts a job there as her caretaker. Lenora has never spoken publicly about the murders, never even setting foot outside the cliffside mansion called Hope’s End on the Maine coast where the killings took place.
“Kit is just a home health aide who really needs a job,” Sager says. “The only one she can get is taking care of Lenora Hope at this crumbling mansion, Hope’s End. Kit’s had a hard time, and she sees this as kind of a last-ditch deal. She doesn’t want to take care of Lenora, but she has no other choice.”
Everything changes when Lenora—confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak because of a series of strokes—manages to type out a message on a typewriter to Kit about the murders, saying: “I want to tell you everything… It wasn’t me.”
I like complicated characters. I’m interested in complicated people. I’m especially interested in people who’ve had things in their past that haunt them and they regret.
It also turns out that Kit has her own secrets, and, according to Sager, she is definitely a very flawed, complicated character as the book’s protagonist.
“I like complicated characters. I’m interested in complicated people. I’m especially interested in people who’ve had things in their past that haunt them and they regret. How they attempt to move forward with this baggage. Complicated people are so fascinating. As an author, I love to create them and see how they react to certain things.”
As Kit tries to unravel the mystery of what really happened to the rest of the Hope family all those years ago, the Hope’s End mansion itself—old, crumbling, eerie, and almost supernatural—adds to the suspense. It is similar to some of the scary settings in Sager’s previous books, like The House Across the Lake.
“I love a good setting,” Sager told us. “I don’t often say this, because I don’t think I’m good at a lot of things. But I am good at evocative settings. Those are definitely in my wheelhouse. I love creating places with atmosphere. Like this house on the cliff and the lake before that. I just try to have fun with it.”
This is the seventh novel for Sager, and his previous books have not only turned him into a best seller but won him widespread acclaim everywhere—including from people like Stephen King. And no one is happier about that than Todd Ritter. Because Todd Ritter is Riley Sager’s real name.
A former journalist, Ritter began using the pen name of Riley Sager after writing a series of novels under his own name that sold poorly.
“It was a matter of necessity. I wouldn’t be published now if I was still using my real name, because my sales were that abysmal. My agent spelled it out for me: You need to use a pen name. What I didn’t expect was to break out the way I did. Critics on social media say ‘Oh, he did this so he can sell a lot of books.’ Well, you can’t plan that. I just wanted to make it as a writer.”
He said he came up with Riley Sager by combining names from his family. “My parents are Ray and Linda. Riley seemed like a good combination. Sager is my grandmother’s name.”
THE ONLY ONE LEFT, like his previous Riley Sager novels, is written in present tense and in the first person, even though his protagonist is a woman.
“I think that from my own reading experience, there is something immediate about the present tense,” he explains. “You are there right now. It is happening right now. Same thing with first person. I found that unlocked something in my writing.”
He wrote six novels under his own name of Todd Ritter (and one under the pen name of Alan Finn) before becoming Riley Sager. He also spent a long time working as a newspaper journalist.
“I kind of fell into everything. My first love is movies. I love books, I grew up a big reader. But I love the movies too. In college, I majored in film studies because I wanted to be a film critic. I got to see free movies. But then I fell into the editing side and got a newspaper job without taking a single journalism course. I worked 20 years in the newspaper business until everything went downhill, and I got laid off.
“But I always wanted to write as well; I always wanted to see my name on the cover of a book. I worked and worked until I made that happen. And now, ironically, it’s not my name on the cover of my books.”
What’s next for him? Well, his last thriller The House Across the Lake has recently been optioned to Netflix for a potential movie. And he’s working on a new book that will be out in June of 2024. But Sager said he can’t tell us any more about it yet, not even what the title will be.
“I’m sure the title I have in mind will not be the final title,” he laughed when we pressed him on that. “Very few of my titles ever get approved to be the actual title.”
Meanwhile, he says he’s never lost his love for movies. Asked to name his favorite films, Sager didn’t hesitate.
“Rear Window, Jaws, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music. That’s a great movie marathon for me. Sit me down and I’ll watch all of them in a row. Sound of Music was big in my family. And the other three are pretty much perfect films. Movies I could watch over and over again. And I have!”