Review: The Substitute by Nicole Lundrigan

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★★★

Spiderline | 2017

Opening Hook: Just hanging around.

Main Character: Seeming guilty might be a fetish.

Plot Twisty-ness: Too much soda.


Okay, so this wasn’t exactly a grab-you-by-the-tits kind of thriller. If that’s what you’re expecting, temper your expectations accordingly. This is slower, but eerie, like a guy walking behind you – he just gives you the creeps but it’s not like he’s done anything but be a man alone on a sidewalk. Depending on your mood, this is either going to hit you as slow and boring or as a slow-burner that is chilling and twisty.

For me, when I read this, it was slowwwwwww like watching a sloth cross the street, which in any other circumstances I would love to do because sloths are my favourite.

sloth eating GIF

That said, I feel like it’s totally on me being in a bad headspace for a slow-burning thriller considering I’ve been stuck in the fucking house since mid-March. I can’t do slow or boring or any combination therein. I need my thrillers to be genuinely thrilling, mysterious and wild if I’m going to forget I’m looking at the same walls every day, all day. HOW MANY MORE WALKS CAN I TAKE MY DOG ON? We’ll find out…

Listen, I’m very grateful for all the people doing the front-line and essential work. But also, I’m getting cabin fever so let me express that, thank you and fuck off.

One thing this book definitely is: disturbing. Mostly because of the unnamed young narrator who takes up 50% of the POV in the book. That bitch is CHILLING. Like, a straight-up budding psychopath from the first introduction, who is so superbly written in their detachment it might give you goosebumps.

Then there’s Dr. Botts, a biologist pursuing a Ph.D. in his field, who needs a break from his intense lab work. He decides to take on the role of substitute science teacher at a high school as a mental health break. Maybe he forgot what teenagers are like??? Because in what fucking world does someone think: “I need a break. Teaching 16-year-olds sounds like a day at the spa.

parks and recreation GIF by Stan.

But, whatever. Here comes Mr. Botts! He’s weird, socially stunted and awkward. Certainly on the spectrum with OCD tendencies. One student, Amanda, takes a more than normal interest in the new substitute. She shows up repeatedly at his house asking for help with her homework. Botts, for as socially inept as he is, knows that a teenage girl coming to a male teacher’s house isn’t a good look, so he tells Amanda to stop coming by.

The next day, Amanda is hanging by a noose from a tree in Botts’ back yard.

NOT A GOOD LOOK AT ALL.

As you would expect, Botts becomes the prime suspect in the girl’s murder.

This book does the one thing I fucking HATE in a narrative meant to make the main character appear guilty – the MC does and says really stupid shit that digs themselves into a deeper hole, instead of, you know, acting like a normal innocent human. If something could be fixed by just ONE character saying a simple truth aloud, then there’s a problem.

It’s bad, stupid behaviour meant to facilitate a plot, like when a character runs up the front stairs instead of out of the house when they’re being chased by a killer in a horror movie. I wish authors would use the Reasonable Person legal standard for character behaviour. If you find you are writing a narrative that requires that the MC be a total moron, then the plot has a problem.

That’s just my two cents.

So here's the thing...Coco is the best animated Disney movie ever ...

I also didn’t like that the author seemed to use mental challenges as a plot device. It felt…odd. There was an abundance of characters with mental disabilities, and while that in and of itself is not an issue at all, it did come across as weird to me that those disabilities were kind of exploited for plot purposes?? It just left a bad taste in my mouth.

Anyway, Lundrigan is a pretty good author in terms of prose and structure, but it was slow for me and some parts could have been left on the cutting room floor. It’s also pretty depressing overall. If you’re looking for a thriller to distract you from the awfulness of real life, then maybe this isn’t the best choice because it will definitely bring down the mood even lower than it already is.

If you have the patience and the right mind frame for this one, give it a shot. For me, it wasn’t terrible, but I didn’t really have a good time reading it either.

🔪🔪🔪


Warren Botts is a disillusioned Ph.D., taking a break from his lab to teach middle-school science. Gentle, soft-spoken, and lonely, he innocently befriends Amanda, one of his students. But one morning, Amanda is found dead in his backyard, and Warren, shocked, flees the scene.

As the small community slowly turns against him, an anonymous narrator, a person of extreme intelligence and emotional detachment, offers insight into events past and present. As the tension builds, we gain an intimate understanding of the power of secrets, illusions, and memories.

Nicole Lundrigan uses her prodigious talent to deliciously creepy effect, producing a finely crafted page-turner and a chilling look into the mind of a psychopath.

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