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Literature / Daddy's Little Girl

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"[O]ver the years I have been awakened many times by the same nightmare: I am kneeling over Andrea's body, slipping in her blood and listening to the harsh, animal-like breathing and high-pitched giggle of a predator. I know with the instinct of fear that has saved humankind from extinction that Rob Westerfield has a beast lurking inside him, and if he is freed, he will strike again."
Ellie Cavanaugh

Daddy's Little Girl is a 2002 crime drama / suspense novel written by Mary Higgins Clark.

When she was seven years old, Ellie Cavanaugh's fifteen year old sister Andrea was brutally murdered in the hideout where she would meet up with friends. Ellie is the one who found the body and it was largely her testimony that led to Robson Westerfield, Andrea's rich and charming boyfriend, being convicted of the murder.

Twenty-three years later, Ellie is now a successful investigative journalist, yet she remains haunted by Andrea's death and the way it tore her family apart. Rob Westerfield is coming up for parole and intends to prove that he is in fact innocent of killing Andrea. Ellie is still convinced he's the murderer and intends to launch her own investigation to prove his guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt, returning to the town of Oldham in New York where the murder occurred.

However, as Ellie commences her investigation she discovers there's far more to the case and Rob Westerfield than she initially believed. She also becomes aware there is someone in town who doesn't want the whole truth to come out, going to increasingly desperate and sinister lengths to stop her. Is it the Westerfields, trying to conceal further evidence of Rob's guilt and get revenge on Ellie for helping convict him? Or is it possible that someone else killed Andrea and doesn't want Ellie to finally reveal the truth?

Not to be confused with the movie Daddy's Little Girls or the trope Daddy's Girl.

Tropes found in this novel include:

  • The '70s / The '80s: The first few chapters depicting Andrea's murder, the investigation and Rob Westerfield's trial eight months later take place in late 1979 and 1980; given the book was published and apparently set twenty-three years later in the year 2002, Andrea's murder would've occurred in November in the year 1979. As there were no cellphones or computers, it's mentioned that Andrea primarily communicated with Rob via phonecalls to his bedroom landline. Andrea's friend Joan also mentions that a big reason neither she, Andrea or their friends mentioned Will Nebels' creepy behavior towards them was because people just generally didn't mention things like that back then, nor did they have a good understanding of sexually predatory behavior.
  • Age-Gap Romance: One of the many questionable things about Andrea and Rob's relationship is that he was nineteen while she was just fifteen when they started dating. Rob claims — not very convincingly — that he didn't have a relationship with Andrea and that she was just a kid who had a crush on him. From Ellie's perspective, Rob used his seniority as one of several methods to control Andrea.
  • The Alcoholic: Will Nebels is somewhat infamous for being the town drunk in Oldham. It's thought that his frequent drunkenness and tendency to creep on local girls and women could make him an unreliable witness, although Ellie points out that enough people doubt Rob's guilt that they will believe Will's claim he saw Paulie go into the garage hideout the night Andrea was killed.
  • Alcoholic Parent: Ellie's mother turned to alcohol after her eldest daughter was murdered and her marriage broke down; it eventually led to her death due to liver damage, though Ellie thinks it was really "a broken heart" that killed her.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Deconstructed with Andrea's attraction to the arrogant and roguish Rob, given he was indicated to be a controlling boyfriend and was convicted of murdering her. Ellie got the impression that Andrea was afraid of Rob, which was why she agreed to meet him the night she died to try and placate him after she'd agreed to go to a dance with another boy.
  • Alone with the Psycho: When Ellie went to Andrea's hideout and found her sister's corpse, she heard someone - presumably the killer - hiding behind a van; she could hear him breathing and laughing nervously, prompting her to flee in terror. Ellie is certain she heard Rob in the garage although some people are sceptical because she never actually saw him.
  • Amoral Attorney: William Hamilton, the Westerfields' defence attorney of choice, is rumored to be willing to go to any lengths to keep the Westerfields out of legal trouble, especially convicted murderer Rob. It's revealed he screwed over another client, the young man Rob hired to kill his grandmother, by hiding evidence of Rob's involvement and persuading him no one would believe him over the Westerfields. Will Nebels also confesses that Hamilton bribed him to go on the record saying he'd seen the innocent Paulie Stroebel at the garage hideout the night Andrea died, thus implicating him. It ends up being deconstructed because when the truth about Hamilton's shady practices come to light, he is disbarred and sent to prison.
  • Anachronism Stew: A minor example; Ellie mentions she and Andrea watched Friday the 13th together, which was released in May 1980. However, going by the timeline Andrea died in November 1979 and so would've already been dead when Friday the 13th came out.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Ellie perceives Teddy as this, finding his persistent attempts to get to know her irritating. It's mostly because she thinks their father set him up to it and at least tries to be patient with him, telling herself that her acrimonious relationship with their father isn't Teddy's fault. She's a lot more willing to open up to him by the ending and she's especially grateful he helped save her from Rob.
  • Arch-Enemy: Ellie regards Rob Westerfield as hers. She despises him for murdering her sister and by extension views him as the one who destroyed her family and their happy life. She won't rest until he's back behind bars and the world knows what he really is. Rob attempts to kill Ellie at least twice in an attempt to foil her.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: A dramatic familial example occurs between Ellie and her father. When Edward sees Ellie's car being followed and forced off the road by Rob Westerfield, he races after them to save her. After crashing his car into Rob just in time to save Ellie's life, Ellie sees Edward's face and states he has the same expression she remembers from when his other daughter was killed. This causes Ellie to realize Edward always loved her just as much as his other children and afterwards they reconcile.
  • Big Brother Instinct:
    • Inverted; Ellie is determined to see justice done by her murdered sister Andrea, who was eight years older.
    • Also inverted with Teddy when it comes to Ellie; despite being a teenager and over a decade younger than her, Teddy is deeply concerned about Ellie's wellbeing. He comes to see her multiple times to try and connect with her and attempts to follow her around Oldham so she won't get hurt; when he gets pulled over by the police he all but cites this trope. Teddy ends up helping save Ellie's life in the climax, as he notices her car has been forced off an isolated backroad by Rob and his crony, allowing Edward to intervene.
  • Blame Game: Ellie's parents both blamed each other for Andrea's death, which is implied to have played a big part in their divorce. Even Ellie got some blame thrown at her despite being only seven, which deeply affected her; even as an adult she still thinks she's partly responsible for what happened to Andrea.
  • Blood-Splattered Innocents: When Ellie finds Andrea's body, she slips in the blood and falls onto Andrea's chest. She then runs home screaming, covered in her sister's blood.
  • Bludgeoned to Death:
    • Andrea's head was bashed in with a tyre iron, leaving a massive hole in her skull and a pool of blood. Little Ellie even initially thought Andrea was wearing some kind of mask when she saw the damage, until she noticed the blood.
    • An anonymous source tells Ellie that Rob claimed in prison he beat someone else to death too. Ellie discovers it was another teenage girl, Amy Rayburn, whose face was left unrecognizable due to the damage.
  • Break-In Threat: Ellie arrives back at the guesthouse where she's staying and notices that someone has broken in, as they added something to a document she was writing on her laptop and subtly shifted some of her things around. It's subtle enough that the cops aren't convinced she's not just being paranoid. Ellie believes the Westerfields paid someone to break in (or that it was maybe even Rob himself) to try and scare her. It's also likely they were scoping out the place to find the ideal spot to start a fire, as Ellie is later a victim of arson and barely escapes.
  • Bungled Suicide: After Paulie survives a suicide attempt, he's hospitalized for blood loss. His injuries become infected and his illness combined with the medication he's treated with causes him to become delirious; when Ellie comes to visit him he starts saying some strange things about Andrea and Rob, in particular stating that Andrea's necklace wasn't there when he "came back", implying he was at the hideout where Andrea died and leading Ellie to wonder if she was possibly wrong about Paulie having no involvement in her sister's death.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Early in the novel, we're introduced to Rosita Juarez, who worked as the Westerfields' housekeeper at the time Andrea was murdered. Late in the novel, she contacts Ellie to say she has important information about Rob that could tie him to another murder. It turns out that it's actually Rob pretending to be Rosita to lure Ellie to him and silence her.
  • Clear Their Name:
    • An interesting inversion drives the plot. Investigative journalist Ellie Cavanaugh learns that Robson Westerfield, the man who killed her sister Andrea, is being released from prison and plans on clearing his name, insisting he didn't kill Andrea. Ellie is still convinced he's guilty and sets out to prove his guilt once and for all.
    • Part of Ellie's motivation for trying to prevent Rob's conviction from being overturned is not just for the sake of her sister, but because the Westerfields and their supporters are trying to push the narrative that Paulie Stroebel was the real killer; Paulie is a vulnerable man with an intellectual disability and Ellie is repulsed at the thought of the crime being pinned on him, especially as half the town already regards him as an alternative suspect.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: A tragic example. Ellie lampshades that despite being a decorated state trooper who saved many lives, her father couldn't prevent the murder of his own daughter, which just adds to his grief.
  • Commonality Connection: Implied between Edward and his second wife. Teddy states that when they met, his mother had been widowed young while Edward's wife left him after the murder of their eldest daughter. It's hinted that they bonded over their respective losses and supported each other as they grieved, although as Ellie barely knows her dad's second wife we don't have any further details on her personality.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Rob came across as being extremely possessive of Andrea. When she told him she'd agreed to go with Paulie Stroebel to a school dance to prevent him from telling her father about Rob, he was so angry at her she was left in tears. That same night, she was murdered; Ellie and presumably the jury believed that Rob was prompted to kill Andrea in a jealous rage that she dared go out with someone else.
  • Damsel out of Distress: Ellie narrowly escapes on her own when the guesthouse she's staying in is deliberately set alight; she even manages to save most of her research material. She does have to stay in hospital a short while to treat her burn injuries, though she got off incredibly lightly.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Ellie; the first chapter reveals the root cause of her tragic past and Ellie fills in some more details during the main part of the story. As a child she found her sister's murdered body and partly blamed herself for it because she'd promised not tell where Andrea might be hiding. Her parents divorced as a result; her mother constantly moved them around and spiralled into alcoholism in an attempt to cope, leading to her premature death, while Ellie perceives her father as having abandoned her for his new family. As a consequence, she's a fiercely independent woman who allows herself few personal ties or moments of vulnerability, and is willing to risk everything to ensure Rob Westerfield never gets his conviction overturned nor has the opportunity to ruin more lives.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: Edward Cavanaugh made it very clear he didn't approve of Rob due to his reputation and wanted Andrea to stay away from him, which just made the rebellious Andrea want to date him more.
  • Death by Despair:
    • Genine Cavanaugh technically died of liver failure caused by excessive drinking, though Ellie states in her opinion she really died of "a broken heart", given that the tragic loss of her eldest daughter and her failed marriage was what drove her to drink.
    • Near the end of the novel Dorothy Westerfield has a fatal heart attack shortly after Ellie publicly reveals proof that her grandson plotted to kill her decades ago. It was rumored for years that Rob was behind the near-fatal shooting of his grandmother in a supposed burglary gone wrong, but Dorothy was in denial over this until Ellie's research removed her doubts. The realization that her grandson truly is a monster (and that her son likely helped cover for him) is evidently too much to bear for Dorothy, who is already in her nineties.
  • Deceptively Silly Title: The title makes it sound like it could be a fairly innocent story about a girl who has a close relationship with her father. It's actually a serious crime thriller in which a Daddy's Girl is brutally murdered, with her surviving sister having a strained relationship with their father rooted in the tragedy (including feeling like The Un-Favourite).
  • Driven to Suicide: Paulie Stroebel cuts his wrists when the Westerfields' housekeeper comes into his shop and publicly accuses him of killing Andrea. He survives (just), but his mother is understandably distraught and it fuels rumors that he did it out of guilt.
  • Driving Question: One of the big ones for Ellie is "What happened to the necklace Rob gave Andrea and why did her killer risk getting caught to come back for it?" There's even some debate over whether the necklace exists, as Andrea kept the necklace a secret, showing only her sister, and no one else ever saw it (or if they did they aren't telling). Ellie is certain she saw Andrea putting it on before she left the house on the night she was killed and Ellie is also sure she felt the necklace beneath Andrea's sweater when she fell onto her body, but no necklace was found at the crime scene.
  • Dueling Works: In-universe, when Ellie learns the Westerfields have hired true crime writer Jake Bern to write a book about the 'real' Rob Westerfield, positing the idea he's innocent, Ellie decides to write a book of her own exposing all the nasty things Rob has done to prop-up his guilty conviction. Ellie's book is a bestseller, though it wins by default given that Bern's book is withdrawn before it even goes to print due to Rob getting arrested for murder/attempted murder again.
  • Early Personality Signs: Even as a seven year old, Ellie is shown to be very smart, observant and good at putting two and two together; these traits serve her well as an investigative journalist in adulthood.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Ellie not only confirms that Rob Westerfield was her sister's killer but also exposes that he murdered another girl; as a result he's sent back to prison and the innocent man convicted for the crime is exonerated. Ellie's book on Rob's crimes is a bestseller, she marries Pete Lawlor, reconciles with her father and gets to know her half-brother, and finally forgives herself over Andrea's death.
  • First-Person Smartass: Ellie makes some extremely sarcastic remarks in her narration, especially whenever Rob or his family go on a spiel about how hard-done-by they are. She's sarcastic to Rob's face as well.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • While Ellie is staying in Mrs Hilmer's guesthouse, Mrs Hilmer receives a call falsely claiming Ellie once tried to burn down a classroom. Soon after, the guesthouse is set on fire and Ellie barely makes it out; the phone call and the fact the fire was started inside the garage beneath the guesthouse are used to make it look like Ellie herself started the fire.
    • It's mentioned several times that Rob was a talent drama student at school, often getting the starring role in plays. Ellie notes that he's still acting, trying to convince everyone he's innocent of killing Andrea and isn't the monster he appears. In the climax, Rob proves just how good at acting he is when he successfully impersonates his old housekeeper Rosita over the phone to trick Ellie into meeting with him.
  • Gender-Blender Name: This becomes an important plot point. A cellmate of Rob's says that while high on cocaine, he bragged about previously killing someone named Phil. Everyone, including Ellie, spends a lot of time searching for a man named Phil who died between twenty-seven and twenty-two years ago, only for Ellie to eventually realize that Phil actually refers to a woman, it being a nickname for Amy Phyllis Rayburn.
  • Get Out!: When Dorothy Westerfield turns up to Andrea's wake to offer her condolences to the Cavanaughs, Edward furiously orders her to leave and accuses her of faking sympathy to make her family look good, as at this stage Dorothy's grandson is one of the chief suspects. Dorothy respects his wishes, although it sparks a public argument between him and Genine, as she felt he was out-of-line and that they don't know yet that Rob is the culprit.
  • Going for the Big Scoop: Ellie is willing to put her life at risk to dig up and expose all the dirt she can find on Rob Westerfield, even after a serious attempt on her life is made. She says she knows she's playing with fire (with most of the supporting cast saying the same) but she refuses to give up researching for her true crime book and puts herself into some dangerous situations. It's less because she values her career to the point of lunacy, and more because she hates Rob that much and doesn't want him walking free after doing so many awful things. Rob takes advantage of this in the climax; he impersonates someone with evidence of one of Rob's crimes and she agrees to meet him without a second thought, not realizing she's been Lured into a Trap until it's too late.
  • Grief-Induced Split: The murder of Ellie's teenage older sister Andrea destroys their family, with a big factor in their parents' divorce being blaming each other for their daughter's death.
  • Hates Their Parent: Ellie is estranged from her father and resents that he divorced her mother and remarried after his eldest daughter, Andrea, was murdered. By the end, they have a much better relationship, especially after her father helps save her life.
  • I Am Not Pretty: Ellie considers herself unattractive compared to Andrea, who she describes as being "pretty and feminine" like their mother. Ellie says she takes after her dad, with stronger facial features she feels are better suited to a man than a woman.
  • If I Can't Have You…: It's not explicitly stated but it's subtly implied that Rob murdered Amy, or Phil as she was nicknamed, for already having a boyfriend and rejecting Rob. He was certainly happy to let Phil's boyfriend take the fall for killing her.
  • I Got Bigger: Several characters who knew Ellie as a child express surprise at how she looks as an adult; she was always small for her age but over two decades later she stands 5'7. Ellie mentions having had a growth spurt after moving away from Oldham. It also symbolizes how she's no longer a scared little girl, but a grown woman who will stop at nothing to take down her sister's killer.
  • Inheritance Murder: There are rumours that Rob Westerfield was secretly the mastermind behind the attempted murder of his grandmother in a supposed burglary gone wrong; Marcus Longo speculates he wanted more money to fuel his drug habit even though Dorothy was already giving him access to a trust fund. Ellie discovers evidence and a new witness that confirms Rob indeed tried this; although it's not enough to get him arrested, it convinces his grandmother and she promptly alters her will so Rob gets nothing.
  • Innocently Insensitive: When Paulie found out Andrea was still dating Rob in defiance of her father, he told Andrea he'd tell Edward unless she agreed to go to the school mixer with him; Andrea agreed to keep him quiet. On the surface this comes across as manipulative but considering Paulie's intellectual disability and difficulties with social interaction, he may not actually have realized this. Andrea herself seemed more concerned about how Rob would react.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Ellie is a journalist who thoroughly investigates every nook and cranny of her stories before sending them to a publisher. She is currently working on a book about the murder of her sister Andrea, wanting to prove definitively that Rob Westerfield - who she helped convict as a child - killed her.
  • It's All My Fault:
    • For twenty-three years, Ellie has partly blamed herself for her sister's murder; her body was found a day after she went missing in a secret hideaway Andrea had told Ellie about, on the condition she keep it secret. Ellie, who was only seven years old, was reluctant to break her promise to Andrea and so didn't tell her parents or the police about the hideaway, until she went there herself and found the body. In their grief, Ellie's parents wondered why Ellie didn't mention it sooner, as Andrea could've potentially been found alive. Ellie is haunted by this.
    • Ellie starts to realize towards the end that both her parents blamed themselves for Andrea's death in one way or another, especially her father. She starts to think that maybe if they'd all been more open with each other about this instead of trying to deal with it alone, the grief and guilt would've easier to bear and things wouldn't have become so bitter between them.
  • I Won't Say I'm Guilty: Rob always denied killing Andrea even after being found guilty. It's mentioned that Rob could've gotten out on parole much sooner if he'd confessed to killing Andrea and expressed remorse, but he refused. He claims it's this trope, as he wouldn't confess to something he hasn't done. Ellie believes the only reason he didn't confess was egotism and because his grandmother would cut him out of the will. It's the latter.
  • Lovable Jock: Ellie's half-brother, Teddy Cavanaugh, as it turns out. He's a popular student and a star basketball player, who is also a genuinely kind and caring young man who looks out for Ellie despite them being practically strangers.
  • Malicious Slander: Ellie considers true crime writer Jake Bern's claims that she was a hysterical, emotionally unstable child and that Andrea was a promiscuous girl who flung herself at Rob to be this. She's particularly incensed about the attempt to suggest their father didn't want Andrea seeing Rob because she was a "tramp" rather than because he thought Rob was a bad influence, especially as Andrea is no longer alive to defend herself. Mrs Hilmer also receives an anonymous phone call claiming that Ellie is still mentally unstable and once set fire to a classroom, which Ellie says is definitively untrue.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: Ellie has a case of this when it comes to her father. He had Andrea, his eldest child whom he doted upon and did his best to keep out of trouble, only for her to be violently taken from him. Now he has Teddy, his youngest child and only son, who is still in school and similar to Andrea in many ways. Ellie, the middle child, always felt she could never compete with either her older or younger sibling when it comes to her father's affections, especially as unlike them she's not athletic, popular or conventionally attractive.
    Ellie: Maybe he was a great father for two of his children, Andrea and you, I thought, but I slipped between the cracks.
  • Miscarriage of Justice:
    • Rob Westerfield claims to be a victim of this and a lot of other people in Oldham are inclined to believe him, especially when handyman Will Nebels publicly claims he saw Paulie Stroebel go into the garage hideout the night Andrea was killed. Ellie refuses to believe it. It turns out that not only is Rob guilty as all hell, he should be in prison for several other crimes too.
    • Ellie discovers that Amy 'Phil' Rayburn's boyfriend was convicted of murdering her but that Rob was actually the real culprit; although her boyfriend could be jealous, Phil's family always had doubts he could seriously harm her, but no one could identify any other plausible suspects. With Ellie's help, he's formally exonerated in the end.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Ellie is an investigative journalist writing for an Atlanta-based newspaper; she also independently writes true crime books. She is currently working on a book about the murder of her sister Andrea and the other misdeeds of Andrea's killer.
  • Nay-Theist: Ellie was brought up Christian and technically still believes in God, but she doesn't go to church or pray anymore, as she feels bitter about God not protecting her sister and it brings back painful memories. Part way through the novel, she gets "on speaking terms with God again", which coincides with her beginning to let go of her guilt and anger over Andrea's murder.
  • Not Me This Time: Andrea's old friend Joan says that while she still thinks Rob is an utter scumbag, she's not convinced he killed Andrea; she thinks it was handyman Will Nebels, who was known for creeping on the local teenage girls, including Andrea, and was seen hanging around the garage. Ellie agrees Will is a total sleaze, especially after he drunkenly gropes her in a restaurant, but still insists Rob is the killer. Ellie's right about both Rob and Will.
  • Not the First Victim: Ellie gets an anonymous tip from a man who says Rob confessed to committing another murder, most likely before Andrea's, though the only information the source has is the alleged victim's name: Phil. A search for a dead man known as Phil with a connection to the Westerfields proves fruitless. A dead woman, on the other hand....
  • Only Known by Their Nickname:
    • Ellie's full name is Gabrielle but Andrea was the only person who called her that (usually when she was being funny) and everyone else - including herself - refers to her as Ellie.
    • Teddy Cavanagh is named after his father Edward and so goes by Teddy to avoid confusion (his father is sometimes called Ted).
  • On One Condition: It's not officially a condition, but Ellie and Marcus Longo both speculate that in private, Dorothy Westerfield has all but demanded her grandson be found not guilty of murder in a second trial, or he can kiss his share of the inheritance goodbye. She indeed cuts him off and donates most of her fortune to charity after Ellie instead reveals proof he plotted her attempted murder years before.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: The suffering Edward and Genine Cavanaugh go through after their eldest child is murdered is Played for Drama to the hilt. It ended up causing them to divorce; while Edward eventually remarried, Genine turned to alcohol which ended up causing her premature death, while their remaining daughter was inadvertently pushed to the side and resents her father, barely speaking to him for years.
  • Papa Wolf: It's revealed Edward has started secretly tailing Ellie around the area after she receives threats to ensure she's safe. While following her one night, Edward sees Rob Westerfield run Ellie's car off the road and attempt to kill her the same way he murdered Edward's other daughter. Edward responds by driving his car straight into Rob, breaking both his legs.
  • Parent with New Paramour: Ellie's father remarried after her mother left him. By all accounts, his second wife is a nice woman who helped Ellie's dad cope with one of the darkest times of his life, but by her own choice Ellie barely knows her. Ellie was deeply unhappy about her parents' divorce, viewing her father as having abandoned her and her mother. Naturally, she isn't happy about him getting a new wife, and refused to attend the wedding or have a relationship with her half-brother. Ellie is still estranged from them at the age of 30. It's worth noting that while Ellie is being stubborn and bitter about the situation, her reaction is rooted in trauma (the catalyst for parents' divorce was her older sister's murder). In the end, Ellie overcomes her emotional hang-ups about her family situation and becomes good friends with her dad's wife.
  • Past Experience Nightmare: Ellie states she's had recurring nightmares the past two decades about finding Andrea's body and hearing her killer nearby.
  • Police Are Useless: Zig-zagged.
    • Detective Marcus Longo, the police officer who headed the investigation into Andrea Cavanaugh's murder, is depicted as a shrewd man who quickly found two likely suspects, Rob Westerfield and Paulie Stroebel. He was suspicious of Rob in particular despite him having an apparent alibi and his case against him was strong enough get Rob convicted eight months later. Marcus was also very kind towards young Ellie, a chief witness; in the present day he still supports Ellie and doesn't buy the Westerfields' attempt to present Rob as an innocent victim, though he's limited as to what he can do to help as he's now retired.
    • The current police in Oldham are not nearly as supportive of Ellie and are sceptical of her claims someone is trying to intimidate or even harm her. One officer in particular makes it clear he thinks Ellie is either paranoid or making things up for attention, even insinuating he thinks Ellie started the fire that nearly claimed her life herself. He also tells her to her face he thinks the wrong man went to prison for killing her sister and that she's harassing the Westerfields.
  • Posthumous Sibling: Andrea is this to Teddy; he was born to Andrea's father and his second wife around five years after Andrea was murdered. Ellie, the middle child, sometimes wonders if Teddy would even have been born if Andrea hadn't died. Although Teddy never knew Andrea, they actually bear some similarities: they're both popular, charismatic and athletic (Andrea was a cheerleader and part of the school band, Teddy is a star member of the basketball team), they can both be stubborn and impetuous (as can Ellie) and they both care deeply about Ellie. In the climax, Teddy helps save Ellie from Andrea's killer, which Ellie finds to be ironic.
  • Practically Different Generations: Ellie is thirteen years older than her half-brother Teddy, who is the product of her father's second marriage. Ellie is 30 and established in her career during the main events of the story, while Teddy is 17 and still in high school. Ellie has never met Teddy at the start of the novel, though it's more because of her estrangement from her father than the age-gap. Andrea would've been around twenty years older than Teddy if she was still alive, though Ellie wonders if Teddy would even exist if Andrea hadn't died (as it was her death that triggered her parents' divorce).
  • Preppy Name: All the men in the Westerfield family. There's Robson Parke Westerfield, the spoiled rich boy who killed narrator Ellie Cavanaugh's older sister, Andrea. His father is Vincent and his grandfather, a former senator, is Pearson Westerfield.
  • Privilege Makes You Evil: Robson Westerfield could well be the poster boy. While it's entirely possible he was born with a predisposition for sociopathic traits, his extremely privileged upbringing clearly exacerbated and reinforced this. Due to his family's prominence and wealth, he grew up thinking he was above everyone else and that consequences don't apply to him, especially as his family use their wealth and influence to bail him out whenever he gets into trouble. Even spending two decades in prison for murder has done little to temper his arrogance, although he's gotten better at hiding his nastier traits in public.
  • Really Moves Around: After the divorce, Ellie's mother Genine moved all over the United States, bringing Ellie with her. She was never able to settle in one place for too long, which is implied to be due to her on-going grief over her eldest daughter's murder. As a consequence, Ellie was constantly being uprooted and never felt truly settled nor established lasting personal ties; even in adulthood she settled in Atlanta mostly because her job is based there and she still travels a lot for work. When the newspaper she's working for gets sold and Ellie is made redundant, she realizes there's not anything keeping her in Atlanta (especially as her closest companion Pete is moving on too). In the end, Pete gets her a new job in New York and she settles down with him there; it also allows her to be closer to her father and half-brother, whom she's reconnected with at long last.
  • Serial Killer: Rob is strongly implied to be a budding serial killer; he beat to death two teenage girls he was romantically connected with, even keeping the first girl's necklace as a trophy and gifting it to his second victim. He also attempts to kill Ellie in the same way, but is fortunately foiled. He a previously attempted to have his grandmother killed too, though he didn't do that personally.
  • Ship Tease: There's a lot between Ellie and her boss Pete Lawlor. He's one of her most trusted companions and confidants, especially considering how isolated she tends to be. She thinks of them mostly as colleagues, until she finds out Pete is planning on moving from Atlanta to either Houston or Los Angeles for work and realizes how much is bothers her that they wouldn't see each other much anymore. She's excited when she hears he might take a job in New York instead, allowing her to visit him while she's staying in Oldham, and realizes that without Pete there, she has no desire to return to Atlanta. She also calls him for emotional support when things get bad in Oldham and despite being a mostly practical person, she makes an effort to glam herself up when she's meeting Pete for a friendly catch-up. Pete for his part teasingly flirts with her and expresses concern for her safety, yet knows better than to try talk her out of her plans due to her stubbornness. In the epilogue, Ellie reveals they got married a year later.
  • Sleeping with the Boss: Exaggerated in Ellie's case; she ends up married to her boss Pete Lawlor by the end. They're both fine with it, as they make a good team both at work and in their personal lives.
  • The Sociopath: One of Rob's former principals says he believes Rob to be a sociopath and he's likely not wrong. Since his teens at the very least, Rob has displayed classic signs of sociopathy: a Hair-Trigger Temper, difficulty controlling his impulses, lack of empathy for others unless he's trying to get something from them, extreme arrogance, superficial charm, no remorse for wrongdoing, reckless behaviour such as speeding and drug-taking, and of course, his murder conviction.
  • Spiteful Will: Dorothy Westerfield's last will provides a sympathetic example. She now has good reason to believe her grandson Rob indeed killed Andrea and tried to have her killed as well; she'd apparently suspected it for years but was deep in denial. Faced with proof, she donates most of her vast fortune to charity and doesn't entirely cut Rob out. He gets a dollar.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Rob Westerfield was a nasty piece of work as a teenager. He was nineteen when he was accused of killing his girlfriend Andrea and was imprisoned by the time he was twenty. A few years earlier when he was seventeen, it was rumored he hired someone to try and whack his own grandma so he could get her money to fuel his drug habit. Ellie discovers that when he was fourteen, he was quietly kicked out of a prestigious school for beating up another student and sent to reform school; at both schools he was described as being an arrogant troublemaker. He also attacked a waitress just for accidentally knocking into him.
  • Trashy True Crime: The novel zig-zags around this trope:
    • On one hand we have true crime writer Jake Bern, who announces he's writing a book purporting to tell the 'true' story of Rob Westerfield and how he was a victim of a miscarriage of justice. It looks likely he's being paid a lot of money by Rob's rich family to write the book and Rob is directly involved too, especially because he's seeking a retrial. Not only does Bern come off as sanitizing Rob's life, he also insinuates that Andrea, the 15-year-old girl Rob was convicted of murdering, wasn't his manipulated girlfriend but a "popular" girl who clung to Rob and may have been involved with lots of unsavory men. Bern further suggests that Ellie, Andrea's sister who was only seven at the time and a key witness, was an emotionally unstable child with an over-active imagination and so wasn't a reliable witness, and feeds into the rumor that the intellectually disabled Paulie was potentially dangerous and obsessed with Andrea to the point of killing her. Lots of other journalists jump on this bandwagon too. Bern's book gets pulled before publication because Rob himself undermines the subject matter; getting caught trying to murder a journalist whose sister you already killed will do that.
    • On the other hand, Ellie Cavanaugh herself is an investigative journalist who writes books and articles on true crime. Unlike Bern and some of the other journalists, she's presented as far more honorable and scrupulous. She genuinely wants to get to the truth of the matter and give victims of crime a voice; she has been praised for writing about victims and their loved ones in a sensitive manner, which is because she knows first-hand how it feels. Ellie is biased against her current subject Rob - which even she acknowledges to a degree - because she's always been convinced he's guilty, though not without good reason, and she goes to great lengths to find more evidence and witnesses backing up her beliefs. Her belief is vindicated in the end and she helps prove another man's innocence.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Early in the book, Rob's mother recalls she once caught him trying to wash the smell of cigarette smoke from his clothes when he was only eleven. His behavior only becomes more extreme in his teens.
  • The Unfavorite: Ellie feels this way in her family. Her parents do love her but she's not always their first priority. Ellie referred to Andrea as being her father's golden child and he barely has a relationship with Ellie now, spending more time with her half-brother; though this is partly because Ellie refuses to have anything to do with her father, she thinks Teddy is the son her father always wanted, while she's just a spare daughter. Ellie's mother was often too lost in her own grief over Andrea's death to put Ellie first. Ellie realizes in the end that while he might not have been good at showing it, her father does love her just as much as Andrea and Teddy.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Played with for Ellie.
    • She does come off as a bit obsessive in her crusade to definitively prove Rob Westerfield's guilt and tends to dismiss people's claims that someone else could've killed her sister even if their theories do make logical sense; some of her conviction around Rob's guilt is also based more on gut instinct than hard evidence. It doesn't help that she was only a child when Andrea was killed and she was understandably terrified and distraught. Ellie herself states that she tends to be quite stubborn and black-and-white in her thinking when she believes she's right. The local police's belief that she's unhinged is inaccurate, though. It's subverted in this case, as Ellie's belief in Rob's guilt is ultimately vindicated threefold.
    • Ellie believes her father abandoned her and her mother to start a new family rather than support them through their grief, which caused her to resent him for over twenty years. She now believes he only wants to reconnect with her to ease his own conscience. However, both Edward and Ellie's half-brother Teddy present a different perspective. Edward points out that Genine was the one who left him, saying it was too painful to stay, while Ellie is the one who insists that her mother expected Edward to follow her when she left. Edward says he stopped trying with Ellie because she completely closed off from him and insisted on staying with her mother, refusing to even visit or stay in touch. Teddy insists that Edward talks about Ellie all the time, secretly attended her graduation and subscribes to her newspaper, supporting that he does love Ellie and that her perspective on their relationship is skewed because of grief.
  • Villain with Good Publicity:
    • Rob's charm and good looks (plus his acting skills having improved from when he was a teen) have resulted in him convincing many people he wasn't Andrea's murderer. His wealthy family are doing everything they can to prop up this view of him to get him a second trial, which they hope will result in an acquittal. Ellie's driving goal is to punch holes in this and reveal Rob's true nature, though she faces opposition from some townsfolk who have either been taken in by Rob or think she's fighting a lost cause.
    • The Westerfields as a whole present themselves as a respectable and generous family whose name has been unfairly dragged through the mud by Rob's wrongful conviction, although beneath the surface they're a lot slimier and more conniving than they appear.
  • Villainous Lineage: While he hasn't got a murder conviction, it's implied that Vincent Westerfield is almost as nasty as his son Rob. He's a greedy and unscrupulous businessman, callous, snobby and refuses to take responsibility for the harm he and his son cause. It's implied that Vincent's parenting style is part of the reason Rob turned out like he did (it's even possible Vincent also has sociopathic traits he genetically passed onto his son).
  • Would Hit a Girl: Rob Westerfield was convicted of fatally bashing his girlfriend's head in. Ellie also learns he grabbed and twisted a young waitress's arm after she accidentally spilled food on him. Ellie later discovers that the 'Phil' he beat to death was a teenage girl. And he personally attempts to murder Ellie when he realizes she's going to expose him.