63 pages 2 hours read

Sulari Gentill

The Woman in the Library

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


The Woman in the Library is the 15th novel by writer Sulari Gentill, an Australian writer. Gentill is a winner of the Australian Crime Writer’s Best Fiction Award and has written several bestselling mystery and fantasy series, including the Rowland Sinclair mysteries and the Hero fantasy trilogy. Published in 2022 by Poisoned Pen Press, The Woman in the Library is a whodunit mystery (a mystery driven by the quest to discover which person in a group committed a known crime) wrapped in a frame tale about writer Hannah Tigone’s effort to trap her beta reader (a person who reads a first draft and provides feedback). The beta reader is Leo Johnson, a man who kills people to provide Hannah research notes for her latest work-in-progress. This guide is based on the 2022 Sourcebooks Kindle edition.

Content Warning: The source material for this guide includes descriptions of physical assaults, sexual assaults, violence against women, and stalking behavior.

Plot Summary

The Woman in the Library is a story-within-a-story. The frame (top-level) narrative comprises emails from Leo Johnson, also known as Wil Saunders, to successful Australian mystery writer Hannah Tigone, who sends him chapter drafts of her latest work-in-progress. Leo sends Hannah feedback on whether she has gotten the diction right for her American characters and research on the Boston setting. Hannah originally planned to come to Boston, but Australian bushfires, catastrophic flooding, and the lockdown in Australia in response to the COVID pandemic prevent her from making the trip. The novel opens with Leo’s cheery celebration of Hannah’s latest book, his complaints about writer’s block as he sits in the Reading Room of the Boston Public Library (famed for the many American writers who worked on their masterpieces there), and his eagerness to read drafts of her next work.

In the story-within-a-story, Hannah is writing is about Winifred “Freddie” Kincaid, an Australian writer who wins a fellowship that will allow her to do research and write her second novel. Freddie’s plans take an unexpected turn when she and three other people—writer Cain McLeod, brilliant psychology student Marigold Anastas, and bored law student Whit Metters—are drawn together by the scream of a woman.

The scream bonds the four, with everyone but Whit assuming their encounter is chance. In truth, Whit is an investigative journalist who engineered the scream to create a connection between the four people. He plans to use their bond to investigate Cain McLeod, a writer whose sentence for killing his stepfather inspired Cain’s award-winning first novel. Whit and his co-author Caroline Palfrey wanted to see if they could get Cain to crack under pressure by manipulating the group and Cain. Their goals are to see if a killer really can be reformed. Caroline tries to cut Whit out of the story by taking his place in the library. He kills her and hides her body in the library the night before the scream. Everyone assumes the scream came from Caroline Palfrey and that Caroline died sometime shortly after the scream. With these details in place, Hannah’s story-within-a-story becomes a classic whodunit in which the quest for the identity of the true killer drives the plot.

Freddie, Marigold, Cain, and Whit bond as they make their way through Boston eateries. Someone stabs Whit, an event that makes them realize they may be in danger because of their proximity to the murder in the library. Freddie and Cain develop an affection for each other, and it becomes clear to Freddie that Marigold not only loves Whit, but she may be stalking him, hence her presence in the library. When Freddie receives crank calls of the woman screaming in the library and of pictures to the doors to her apartment and Whit’s, she suspects she is a target. As she learns more about Marigold’s stalking of Whit and the true story of Cain’s early life, she begins to suspect that everyone in the group has secrets, and she is not sure whom to trust.

In the frame narrative, Leo grows impatient with the whodunit plot. He loves Marigold, especially as he realizes she was in the library because she stalks Whit, but he thinks Hannah should have more realistic detail about the crime. He provides advice to Hannah about her use of Australian terms instead of American ones, but his advice is sometimes hit or miss. His tone changes after an important agent rejects his work. He gleefully tells Hannah that the agent died under mysterious circumstances. He soon begins sending Hannah photos of crime scenes and people with wounds from attacks. As the pandemic in the United States worsens, he begins to send gruesome photos that indicate he may be committing crimes himself.

In the story-within-a-story, Freddie learns the truth about Cain’s past, but she allows her attraction for him to overwhelm her reason. The mystery of who killed Caroline and Freddie’s growing entanglement with Cain, Marigold, and Whit are excellent inspiration for her writing. Her love for her friends and Cain prevents her from examining their actions critically. She strikes up a friendship with Leo Johnson, another writer on fellowship. He pops up around her when least expected. They eat dinner at his place and share their works-in-progress. Leo is clearly attracted to Freddie, but he doesn’t push it when she doesn’t reciprocate.

In the frame narrative, the FBI follows up on a call Hannah made to them about Leo’s disturbing messages and photos. They tell her he is likely a serial killer and that she must end her correspondence with him. The next letter is one in which Hannah’s lawyer outlines a plan for Hannah to use her correspondence with Leo to help the police catch him. She assumes no legal responsibility for anything Leo may do as a result of the correspondence.

In the story-within-a-story, Boo, an unhoused man and a person with an addiction to drugs, demands money from Cain and later hits him over the head with a glass bottle. He also warns Freddie that Cain is dangerous. Cain admits to Freddie that he knew Boo because Cain was a teen “runaway” in Boston. His new work is a novel about Isaac Harmon, an older man who taught him how to survive on the streets. Someone kills Boo, and Freddie begins to suspect Cain may be involved or responsible for the killing, but she doesn’t tell the police this. More evidence that Marigold may be stalking Whit is evident. Whit, Marigold, and the police reveal that Cain has been dishonest about his past. They tell Freddie about his imprisonment for killing his stepfather. When Freddie confronts him, he tells her he was defending himself from his stepfather, a cruel man whose abuse culminating in an attempt to sexually assault Cain on the night Cain killed him. Freddie and Cain make love.

In the frame narrative, Leo is angry that Hannah includes romance in her draft. He encourages her to include murder, physical and sexual abuse of female characters, and gory details. He also insists that Hannah must include the pandemic as part of the setting for her novel. His anger increases when he begins to suspect that Cain or perhaps all the characters are Black. He is aware of protests in the United States over the killing of unarmed Black people in police custody and even the idea of unconscious bias, but he feels tricked by Hannah’s failure to include defined racial markers. Other readers will feel tricked as well, he insists.

He suggests she use hoodies to help readers realize Cain is Black and to include masks in her narrative. He wants Freddie to experience abuse for falling in love with Cain, for Marigold to get the relationship she wants with Whit, and for Marigold not to be the murderer. When Hannah refuses to do what he wants, he threatens to harm her. A letter from the FBI acknowledges Hannah’s reporting of the threat, but the agent warns Hannah that Leo slipped past immigration and is now in Sydney, where she lives. Leo manages to get to within a hands-breadth of her before the police capture him.

In the story-within-a-story, Cain and Freddie realize that Boo had doughnuts from a fancy shop on the day he died—a shop where Marigold bought doughnuts for Whit. They conclude Marigold is the one who stabbed Whit and may be Caroline Palfrey’s murderer as well since Caroline frequently pretended to be Whit’s girlfriend to help Whit avoid talking to abandoned lovers. When they arrive at Whit’s house to confront Marigold and save Whit from her, Whit shoots Cain and confesses that he was responsible for Caroline and Boo’s death. He tells them all about his plot to trap Cain.

In the frame narrative, Leo, despite being in prison, tells Hannah he is loyal and hopes to be reunited with her someday. He will be there for her if she needs him.

In the story-within-a-story, Cain survives surgery, and his and Freddie’s love for each other is cemented. Leo, Freddie’s writer friend, shows up out of nowhere to help Freddie and Marigold get past the reporters. He came in case Freddie needed help.

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