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64 pages 2 hours read

Alice Feeney

Rock Paper Scissors

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Rock Paper Scissors, published by Flatiron Books in 2021, is the fourth novel by British author Alice Feeney. Feeney conceived the plot during two winter trips to remote Scottish highland sites much like the book’s fictional Blackwater Chapel. Like her previous thrillers, this mystery contains multiple plot twists that play on assumptions about who the heroes and the villains are. Intricately written in short chapters with multiple narrators and points of view, the book is labyrinthian, containing surprises as well as some false detours en route to its conclusion. The screen rights to Rock Paper Scissors, like two of Feeney’s previous books, were picked up within a year of its publication, in this case by Netflix to develop a series. In addition to being a Book of the Month Club Selection and a Fall 2021 Publisher’s Weekly Top Ten Mystery, the novel was a Summer 2021 Crime Reads Most Anticipated Crime Book. A former writer and editor for the BBC’s news and fiction development departments, Feeney brings her skills in pacing and engaging to her novels. This novel uses minimal foul language and contains no graphic sexuality or violence except for references to past violence, death, murder, and animal abuse. Characters drink alcohol and take prescription sleeping pills.

While Feeney doesn’t number the chapters and many chapters have duplicate names, this study guide assigns consecutive numbers to each chapter to help keep track of the ongoing narrative. Also, the intricacy of the storyline and development of the characters make assigning chapter numbers essential. Refer to the Literary Devices section for a discussion of the author’s use of various tenses and points of view. The chapter titles dictate the author’s use of these devices.

Plot Summary

Amelia Wright drives her husband, noted screenplay author Adam Wright, and their old Labrador retriever, Bob through the remote Scottish Highlands to a weekend retreat she won online at an isolated, deserted former chapel called Blackwater Chapel. They ride through a heavy winter snowstorm, arriving to find the ghostly building locked with no signs of life. After walking around the grounds, looking for another entrance, they discover that the doors are unlocked.

Amelia styles this weekend as the last hope for the couple, who are in marriage counseling. Adam voices skepticism that getting away will bring them closer, though he promises to desist from his constant working.

They find the inside of the chapel barren of food and other human comforts. They locate a note written to them with instructions for finding the food freezer and wine crypt. Alone in the kitchen, Amelia sees a face looking back at her through the window. She screams and drops a wine bottle.

Amid surprising, frightening developments like this—which serve as miniature cliff-hangers—Feeney inserts a series of love letters to Adam from his wife each year on their anniversary. Since Amelia is Adam’s wife, the natural assumption is that she wrote the letters, which detail the relationship’s highs and lows and contain secrets about her that she hasn’t revealed to Adam. She writes that she may or may not show the letters to him. She got the idea for writing them from reading his cherished script Rock Paper Scissors, which hasn’t been purchased by a studio.

Adam opens the chapel’s exterior doors to find the flock of sheep they drove through when approaching the chapel. Amelia still thinks a human face looked in at her. Adam insists that it’s her turn to descend into the wine crypt for another bottle. While she’s there, the power goes out and the crypt’s trap door slams shut, leaving Amelia in absolute darkness. She has an asthma attack. Adam rescues her, and after they have dinner and wine, they climb the stairs to the upper level. Along the way, they see a series of photographs, some of which have been removed.

Upstairs are four doors. One is marked dangerous, two are locked, and the fourth is their bedroom. While Amelia changes into a sexy new nightgown, thinking about how long they’ve gone without intimacy, Adam opens the door marked dangerous and climbs the stairs to the belltower. Amelia guesses where he has gone and follows him. Wrapped in a blanket and drinking wine, they take in the spectacular view of the snow-covered landscape. When Amelia rises to leave, she bumps the tower bell, and dozens of bats buzz by her as they fly out of the tower. Adam stumbles as part of the retaining wall crumbles. Amelia catches him just before he falls from the tower.

Waking from her sleep, Amelia hears someone climbing the stairs and locks herself in the bathroom. Adam pounds on the door, telling her that he was the person on the stairs. He thought he heard noises downstairs as well.

In addition to the annual love letters, Feeney introduces a recluse, Robin. She lives in a nearby cottage that was the manse for the priests who served the chapel. Robin spies on Amelia and Adam. Robin sneaks into the chapel after Amelia and Adam are asleep, locking and unlocking doors and leaving items for them to discover.

The anniversary letters discuss Adam’s successes and frustrations as a screenwriter, particularly his big break in getting famous author Henry Winter to allow Adam to adapt his most famous horror novel for the screen. His wife describes their failed attempts at in vitro fertilization and her miscarriage. She recounts his work with beautiful A-list actor October O’Brien, who wanted to turn Rock Paper Scissors into a movie before her suicide at age 30. She describes her irritation at Adam for bringing Henry to their home, which drove her to spend a weekend with her best friend and co-worker. On their ninth anniversary, she recounts, that best friend turned up looking gorgeous at their home after her date went wrong.

Returning to the narrative, Amelia and Adam wake the next morning to find that their dog, Bob, is missing. After searching inside and outside the chapel, they walk to the cottage and knock on the door. Adam walks around the building and sees a woman sitting by herself inside, though she makes no effort to answer the door. Amelia leaves a note asking if the woman has seen Bob. Having read a historical brochure saying the chapel was a prison and execution site for witches and their children, Adam and Amelia decide to leave. They discover that someone has slashed all four tires on Amelia’s car. They climb the hill adjacent to the chapel, looking for any sign of civilization. Atop the hill, they see a woman enter the chapel.

The 10th anniversary letter sets the stage for several plot twists. Adam’s wife returns from work early to find him in bed with her best friend. His wife leaves, never to return. This implies that the author of the anniversary letters isn’t Amelia. Instead, the author is Robin, whose former best friend, Amelia, quickly moved in when Robin left and married Adam as soon as possible. Robin is Henry Winter’s estranged daughter. He summoned her knowing that he was near death and turned Blackwater Chapel over to her. Rather than telling anyone that he was dead, Robin buried him in the chapel graveyard and assumed his identity. She discovers that Henry used a private detective, who informed Henry about Robin, Adam, and even Amelia. This discovery allowed her to devise a scheme to get revenge against Amelia and recover her husband and her life.

Adam and Amelia descend to the chapel and discover a hidden door leading to Henry’s study as well as numerous new items pointing to the presence of Henry and Robin. The missing photos along the stairwell have appeared, and they reveal that Robin is Henry’s daughter. They realize that Robin is behind their trip and all that has happened. Going downstairs, determined to walk to safety, Adam and Amelia can’t open the doors.

Robin slides an envelope with Adam’s name under the door. It contains the 12th annual letter, the first she has allowed him to read. Today, February 29, would be their 12th anniversary. Robin writes that Amelia, when a troubled teenager, was responsible for running over Adam’s mother. As Adam confronts her about this, Amelia has an asthma attack. She grabs a knife to stab Adam. Adam sees Robin appear behind Amelia with a pair of sharp scissors.

Six months later, Robin writes another love letter expressing that she has happily resumed her life with Adam. She’s successfully authoring novels as Henry. Adam hangs onto one last big secret: He was the person driving the car that teenaged Amelia stole when it accidentally ran over his mother. In the last chapter, Sam, Henry’s private detective, finds Blackwater Chapel chained shut with a new, unmarked grave in the chapel graveyard.

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