reviewed by Pam Guynn
David Bell immerses readers in a locked house mystery in his latest book, The Finalists. It’s spring and time for the six finalists at Hyde College in Bluefield, Kentucky to compete for a prized scholarship that also has extra benefits.
The students, a college liaison, and a representative from the Hyde family are locked in Hyde House for eight hours. This will be the 152nd year of this tradition. The students are evaluated on an essay written during the morning and individual personal interviews in the afternoon. If the students leave before time is up, they’ll be disqualified. When one of the students dies, the others wonder if they will be killed one by one. Was it murder, an accident, a health issue, or something else entirely?
There are eight major characters in this novel. Vice President Troy Gaines is the college liaison and misses teaching. He’s married, has three children, and is worried about being able to afford paying for their college. At times, he came across as a diplomat and at other times as an authority figure. Occasionally, it felt like he reacted to the situations unrealistically. Nicholas Hyde is the heir to the Hyde family fortune. He’s irresponsible and likes to party and flirt. The students are Milo Reed, Natalia Gomez, Captain James Stephenson, Sydney Mosley, Duffy Mansfield, and Emily Paine. Readers get some insight into their personalities. All of them are desperate for the scholarship money and readers gradually get their backstories.
The characters were easily identifiable and I had no trouble remembering who was who. The author does a good job of setting the atmosphere and tone of the novel. I could easily visualize the rooms in Hyde House, an aging Victorian house that has been in the Hyde family since the 1800’s. The tone is ominous even without a death due to protestors and strict bylaws requiring no personal items, including cell phones and smart watches.
The story seems to ebb and flow, but it gradually builds momentum. It was interesting to see how everyone in the story reacted as events, including death, occurred during the book. Would you feel safe? How would you react? The dialogue felt realistic despite the lack of critical thinking around solutions. While this was not a fast page-turner for me, the pacing worked well. Will you find the plot twist at the end a surprise or a disappointment?
The author layers multiple themes as the story focuses on the challenges students face in order to get an education as well as the lengths colleges will go to in order to receive donations from wealthy donors. Other themes include safety, death, secrets, blaming others, grief, protests, underrepresented groups of students in college, tradition, and respect.
Overall, this engaging novel was never dull and had periods of intense suspense. If you enjoy locked room (building) mysteries, then I recommend that you check out this one. The key is to connect to one or more of the eight main characters.
Berkley Publishing Group and David Bell provided a complimentary digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley. This is my honest review. Opinions are mine alone and are not biased in any way. Publication date is currently set for July 5, 2022.