Literary Fiction Mystery

Big Lies in a Small Town – Diane Chamberlain

18 January 2020
Big Lies in a Small Town Book Cover Big Lies in a Small Town
Diane Chamberlain
St. Martin's Press
January 14, 2020

North Carolina, 2018: Morgan Christopher's life has been derailed. Taking the fall for a crime she did not commit, she finds herself serving a three-year stint in the North Carolina Women's Correctional Center. Her dream of a career in art is put on hold—until a mysterious visitor makes her an offer that will see her released immediately. Her assignment: restore an old post office mural in a sleepy southern town. Morgan knows nothing about art restoration, but desperate to leave prison, she accepts. What she finds under the layers of grime is a painting that tells the story of madness, violence, and a conspiracy of small town secrets. North Carolina, 1940: Anna Dale, an artist from New Jersey, wins a national contest to paint a mural for the post office in Edenton, North Carolina. Alone in the world and desperate for work, she accepts. But what she doesn't expect is to find herself immersed in a town where prejudices run deep, where people are hiding secrets behind closed doors, and where the price of being different might just end in murder. What happened to Anna Dale? Are the clues hidden in the decrepit mural? Can Morgan overcome her own demons to discover what exists beneath the layers of lies?


Big Lies in a Small Town is a stunning story full of mystery, opportunity and loss. It is emotionally absorbing from beginning to end with enthralling secrets and puzzles that maintain a great momentum without dropping gear. The story is told over two time periods from the perspective of two young female artists, Anna Dale in 1940 and Morgan Christopher in 2018.

Morgan is serving a sentence in North Carolina Correctional Facility for a drunk driving crime she took the blame for, to save her boyfriend. Lisa Williams and the family lawyer visit Morgan in prison and make her an offer of release on parole if she will restore a mural that has lay hidden for 78 years. The request is detailed in the Will from the celebrated black artist Jesse Jameson Williams, who has recently passed away and was planning on opening a gallery with his daughter Lisa. The ownership of the family house and Morgan’s freedom, are all tied to Morgan completing the restoration of the mural before the opening of the gallery in two months’ time. For some reason, Morgan was Jesse’s last project but this is unusual as all his previous support went to young African-American artists and she’s white. When they unwrap the mural canvas, they look on in shock and disbelief at the task ahead.

“Five separate scenes, all of them a mess. The entire mural looked as though someone had attached it to the back of a car and dragged it facedown over earth and stones and mud for miles and miles. To me, the painting—all seventy-two square feet of it—looked utterly beyond saving.”

Apart from the considerable damage, there are strange anomalies within each scene, an old motorbike appearing out of context and centre stage, plus a hammer with blood dripping from it, a skull visible from a house window and a woman with a knife clenched in her teeth.

To understand the mural is to understand who Anna Dale was and what really happened to her. All that’s known is that she had mental health issues and disappeared without a trace. The consequence of a young artist winning the government-sponsored competition to paint a mural for the post office in Edenton, North Carolina, over an established artist from the same town caused issues. The journey of Anna from the excitement of winning the competition through the inspired creativity of her mural, the development of multi-racial friendships and her confrontation with a major event, is utterly compelling. Issues of racism and abuse raise their ugly head and Anna hides secrets and clues in her painting. The idyllic community of Edenton suddenly becomes toxic and Anna and her young black art student take action that will totally change their lives.

Diane Chamberlain’s writing and storytelling are outstanding and the equal emphasis on each storyline was superb. Never once did I have a preference of one character’s adventures over the other, with each holding me taut and full of anticipation for when I would encounter them again. The location and community of Edenton came alive with a mix of beauty and prejudices, caring and hatred, selflessness and jealousies, and racial division that held threats and menace.

I will not forget this book easily and I can highly recommend it as a fabulous novel full of mystery, excitement and adventure. Many thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of the book in return for an honest review.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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