‘Murderers are human too.’ Read an excerpt from The Broken Ones, the new dark thriller from Ren Richards

Who do you turn to when you’re not sure if you love your child? And when they’re taken, will anyone believe your innocence?

Jonathan Ball Publishers has shared an excerpt from The Broken Ones by Ren Richards.

Ren Richards is the pen name for bestselling Young Adult author Lauren DeStefano. DeStefano has published seven YA novels, four middle-grade novels and has an impending picture book, and has always dreamed of breaking in to the adult suspense category.

‘Masterfully plotted, incredibly twisted, with compelling characters and an ending that left me awestruck. Put this one on your 2020 list!’ – Samantha Downing, bestselling author of My Lovely Wife

‘I really enjoyed the style of writing. It really drew me in and I had to keep reading. I also loved the mystery of it and was never quite sure who to trust. I found this cleverly written, intriguing and twisty. It definitely kept me turning the pages.’ – Karen Hamilton, bestselling author of The Perfect Girlfriend

‘Ren Richards has crafted a story fraught with suspense that weaves back and forth through time and keeps you guessing. An engrossing tale of secrets, regret and redemption. The Broken Ones is an emotional rollercoaster right up until the final page. I devoured this book.’ – Sherri Smith, author of The Retreat

‘Darkly atmospheric and haunting, The Broken Ones had me hooked from page one. I adored the characters and raced through it, desperate to uncover all their secrets. A brilliant ending that I’m still thinking about …’  – Vanessa Savage, author of The Woman in the Dark

‘Creepy and compelling, a compulsive and very human thriller. I couldn’t put it down.’ – Fran Dorricott, author of After the Eclipse

‘A spellbinding, beautifully written mystery that kept me turning the pages right up to the heart-stopping ending.’ – Alice Blanchard, award-winning author of Darkness Peering

‘The Broken Ones is a compulsive twisty read that kept me guessing until the end. Atmospheric and dramatic, this dark thriller is full of believable and complex characters who hook you into their secrets and play with your emotions. A killer first line and a satisfying ending; I loved it.’ – Julia Barrett, author of My Sister is Missing

About the book

When her child was taken what did she really see?

A bestselling true crime writer, Nell Way tells other people’s stories. But there is one story Nell won’t tell. Ten years ago and with a different name, she was a teenage mother with a four-year-old she found desperately hard to love. Then the little girl disappeared, and Nell has never shaken off the shadow of suspicion.

As she begins to interview the subject of her next book – a woman convicted of murdering her twin sister – it becomes clear that someone has uncovered her true identity.

And they know that Nell didn’t tell the truth about the day her daughter disappeared …

Read the excerpt:




Murderers are human too. That’s the part people forget. Look at this photo of the Widow Thompson. She is a middle-aged woman with grey hair and a disoriented sort of smile. Her eyes are distant. She looks ashen and strange, but objectively human. She has teeth, cheekbones, clavicles that peek out from the collar of her olive-coloured dress.

Now you find out this woman is a murderer. Suddenly the eyes are not human. The smile is evil, depraved. The skin is not covering a skull and bones and muscle. Something has changed, and you tell yourself that you had already suspected this. You’ll turn to the person next to you and say, ‘I knew it. I knew something was off.’

There is no bone, no piece of connective tissue or strand of DNA that separates a church mom from a woman who drowns all eight of her children in a bathtub. And that’s what the woman in this photo has done. She started with the oldest, who was eleven. Eleven is bigger than one or three or even nine. An eleven-year-old can weigh about a ninety pounds and put up a good fight, rake their nails across their mother’s face, rip the towel rack from the wall trying to climb out of the shallow porcelain grave. Pieces of drywall and fractured tiles turned the water grey.

But the Widow Thompson was stronger. Not by much, but enough to get the job done. The other children were smaller, easier. The thirteen-month-old was last. She took no effort at all. As her mother carried her past the bodies of her siblings – all laid out in a silent row on the bedroom floor – she stared curiously, wondering why none of them looked up to pay her any attention.

Babies are easy to kill. That’s what the Widow Thompson said in her interview with police. She smiled and said that it was peaceful. Her older children hadn’t known that this was the right thing to do, but the baby had. She just slipped underwater and closed her eyes.

You only have a photo of the woman, though. You don’t have the forensics photo of the baby in the tub; you just have to take the woman’s word for it, and you’d be stupid to believe it happened like she said. But don’t kid yourself. The hands she used to do it were shaped just like yours.

CTRL + S, and the story was saved to Nell’s hard drive. The Widow Thompson would be her second true crime novel, the most controversial, and as of yet, the most lucrative.

It was five minutes to midnight. She sat in the dark with the blue glow of the screen lighting up her face. The tea in her mug had gone cold. The cream was curdled and pungent, like metal in the air.

She opened an email to her agent, attached the file and hit send, meeting her deadline with four minutes to spare.

Sebastian slept in the bed beside her, turned away, the muscles of his back creating lines in his shirt.

‘Hey,’ Nell whispered, and leaned over to kiss his ear. The laptop slid and she grasped it before it slid off the bed.

Bas groaned and shifted.

‘I finished it,’ she said.

Bas turned to face her, and his eyes opened, heavy-lidded. ‘Just now?’

She closed the laptop with a resolute slam. ‘Just now.’

He coiled his arms around her and pulled her to his chest. ‘What’s it like in your head?’ He tucked her hair behind her shoulder. ‘All those fucked-up stories floating around all the time.’

‘They’re not my stories,’ she said. ‘I’m just reporting the facts.’

He buried his face in the curl of her neck. He smelled so good, like laundry fresh from the dryer. It was the consistency of his presence – his smell, his touch, even the soured breath from hours of sleep – that Nell loved the most. Consistency was a foreign country whose maps eluded her. Two years of sleeping beside this man and she was still waiting for the morning she would wake up and find him gone.

It was a thought that left her fearful of the dark, as though he would disappear in the blackness between the city lights that dotted the windows. But every morning he was exactly where she’d left him, and the longer he stayed, the more their lives braided together. She could almost believe that he was permanent. This frightened her more than anything the Widow Thompson had done.

Sebastian’s eyes were closed now. He tightened his hold on her, and her body rose and fell with the waves of his breathing. ‘How does it end?’ he asked.

‘The Widow Thompson’s mug shot,’ Nell said. ‘That’s what made me want to take this story. It was just so – sad.’

‘Yeah. Eight kids drowning in a tub because their mother is one Froot Loop away from a full bowl is pretty sad,’ Bas snorted.

‘I didn’t write a book about the kids,’ Nell said. ‘We already know their story. They were all over the news. Little Stacie in her ballet photos and Caleb getting baptised in his tuxedo with the sleeves that are too big for him.’

Indeed, there had been a dozen two hour specials in the three years since the crime had occurred. The story had been interred in the endless tomb of the world’s tragedies, only to be ripped open anew by the Widow Thompson’s appeal case.

Society had seen fit to let her rot in the New York state pen on death row, but a women’s rights group successfully won an appeal to have her transferred to a mental healthcare facility two months ago. It sparked outrage, and the news was plastered with the photos of her dead children, forever frozen in time. Blowing out birthday candles and holding up Fourth of July sparklers and – in a tragic bit of irony – splashing each other in the public pool.

But nobody talked about the Widow Thompson. Nobody talked about the husband who died when his tractor-trailer veered off the road after a forty eight-hour shift to provide for the children he’d insisted they conceive in bulk. Nobody talked about the postpartum depression the Widow Thompson had been displaying for a good five years before the crime, ever since the birth of her twins, Spencer and Lillian.

Someone had to, Nell thought.

For the first half of this writing endeavour, she wondered if she would be demonised for daring to see such a wicked woman as human. And for the second half, she’d ceased to give a fuck. The truth came out hard and fast and ugly.

‘You’re going to get a lot of letters,’ Sebastian said. ‘They won’t be like the ones you got for your last book.’

‘Mm,’ Nell agreed.

It had been five years since the true crime novel that jettisoned her to literary acclaim. That hadn’t been the goal. She just wanted to tell the story, and it had taken her several years.

Nathan Stuart. Nine-year-old victim of the Syracuse Strangler, a man with a clean record. He had been luring children to his ’64 Cadillac Eldorado for a decade. The car was an antique, bright blue and in mint condition; it drew the eye. Children especially had only seen such a thing in pictures and often wanted to climb inside, as though it were a sort of time machine. Nathan Stuart was the first of his victims to ever be found – half of him, at least. His legs were never recovered, though the Strangler confessed to throwing them in a landfill outside of Rochester in exchange for a plea deal.

While every journalist in the city covered the story, Nell had been the only one to drive to Rochester to meet with the Stuarts. They were in no mood to speak to reporters, but Nell was a baby-faced college junior with a splash of blonde freckles across her nose and a small, unassuming sort of presence. The heaviness of her leather jacket nearly swallowed her up, and her pinstripe leggings made wrinkles where her ankles were too bony to fill them.

Later, Mrs Stuart would say it was the freckles that won her over. She showed Nell the photos of Nathan’s freckled smile, plucking the four school portraits from the mantel and laying them one at a time in Nell’s hands. Nathan at six. Nathan at seven. Nathan at eight, holding a baseball bat and missing a front tooth. Nathan at nine, in the photo that made the news all summer long. Nell handled each with care, as though she were holding what had been found of the child’s bones.

The interview with Nathan Stuart’s mother and sister was a thousand words long and posted on her university’s bimonthly page in the town gazette. There it sat stagnant for a month, until a literary agent called the university to find out how to contact this Nell Way, who had somehow managed to capture an entire lifetime in a thousand words. He had never read such a compassionate account of something so brutal. ‘You have a gift, Ms Way,’ he’d told her. ‘You’re not like those vultures who show up looking for a fast story and a faster dollar. You bring victims back to life. You make them human again.’

For three years, and under her agent’s guidance, Nell turned the Stuarts into a humanising true crime novel with a finesse every reporter on the case would come to envy. And at twenty-nine years old, Nell had at last completed her second opus, this time favouring the perspective of the villain. Her agent had been so enamoured with the Widow Thompson project that it had already found a home with a publisher who’d agreed a contract for seven figures.

The number still didn’t register to Nell, though Sebastian had hoisted her up and spun her around the living room when she told him. Her agent said she’d realise just how much money she’d made the moment she hit send.

But as Nell lay awake, Sebastian dozing beside her, she was thinking of Marina Thompson, tucked away in a dreary room, fated to a life of pills and construction paper hand turkeys. How silent it all must have been, to have grown used to a house filled with children, and to now be in a place where no child would ever visit her again, except in her nightmares.


Categories Fiction International

Tags Book excerpts Book extracts Jonathan Ball Publishers Ren Richards The Broken Ones

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