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A Missing Girl, Mysterious Deaths, & Tumultuous Relationships are fodder for Stacy Willingham’s brand of Southern Gothic

A Missing Girl, Mysterious Deaths, & Tumultuous Relationships are fodder for Stacy Willingham’s brand of Southern Gothic
January 2024

The Charleston-based best-selling author delivers her third thriller, “Only If You're Lucky”

Author Stacy Willingham’s third novel, Only If You're Lucky, will be available January 16. Her first book, A Flicker in the Dark, was optioned by HBO Max to be developed into a TV series.

It seems in the publishing world, January is to thrillers what May is to beach reads, or at least that’s the case for author Stacy Willingham. With her much-anticipated third novel arriving this month, the 32-year-old Charleston resident is on track to pump out a book a year. But there’s more than a prolific pace behind Willingham’s rapid rise to suspense-genre fame and reader fandom. Amid the curious deaths, bruising young romances, and who-can-you-trust relationship sagas, serious narrative talent lurks. 

Readers got a first spark of Willingham’s storytelling prowess with her January 2022 debut, A Flicker in the Dark (Minotaur Books), which made her a New York Times and USA Today best seller and garnered all sorts of accolades, including finalist for Book of the Month Club’s Best of 2022. She released All the Dangerous Things (Minotaur Books) the following January, which Publisher’s Weekly called a “lyrical thriller” and “involving, thought-provoking page-turner.” Now her third, Only If You’re Lucky (Minotaur Books), lands almost exactly a year later, proving there’s no “only if” to Willingham’s luck, just hard-core discipline and a knack for shrewd dialogue, maniacal plots, and murderous ease. 

There’s a slight YA-feel to the novel, centered on the tangled intertwining of four college friends—Margot, Lucy, Sloane, and Nicole, plus the ghost of Margot’s high school bestie. “One day we’re strangers and the next we’re friends. That’s how it works with girls,” the book opens, and the following 365 pages explore a universal truth of female drama: how even those considered our closest pals can remain elusive, mysterious, and sometimes dangerous strangers. 

Willingham’s settings cleave to her Southern roots, with her first book set in Louisiana, her second in and around Savannah—where the Wando High School and University of Georgia grad earned her master of fine arts. This one ushers the reader between Margot’s home on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and a small South Carolina college dubbed Rutledge College—think a mash-up of the College of Charleston and Wofford situated somewhere near the coast—which means there’s a boozy island frat party scene conjured straight out of the first season of Outer Banks, only missing a few Pogues. 

The chapters scoot back and forth in chronology, with a bread-crumby backstory wedged between current scenes as the whodunit unravels. Though this structure seems prevalent these days, especially in the true crime/thriller genre, it can make it tricky to follow the thread. But Willingham’s hopscotching is deft, and while at times the need to reorient the reader means repetition of description and detail (Lucy’s signature perfume of vanilla and smoke; metallic whiffs of blood from a deer shed, heavy-handed Jekyll-and-Hyde motifs), the text maintains momentum. The author pretzels her plot with twists, turns, teases, and tension, baking in enough salt and crunch to keep you munching. 

Willingham is a puzzle master with a penchant for dropping subtle clues in unlikely places. I’m not sure why suspense and surprise are so satisfying, but they are, especially when wrapped in commanding prose tinged with cutting psychological acuity. While I found the relationships mostly believable and the college angst relatable, my interest as a reader was less driven by compassion for these characters than by my curiosity. I wanted to untangle the puppet master’s strings—to see what Willingham had in store and how she did it. The only spoiler alert is that she does it well.