Book review, Fool Me Twice, Benjamin Stevenson

Two baffling mysteries in one book, one featuring a kidnapping, the other a reality TV show.
Two panels. On the left is a headshot of man with brown hair and a stubble. On the right is the cover of a book with 'Fool Me Twice' in yellow against a red background. "Benjamin Stevenson' is printed upside down.

Fool Me Twice is the overarching title of Benjamin Stevenson’s two novellas: Find Us and Last One to Leave. One of the stories is printed upside down and back to front resulting in two front covers, each proudly proclaiming ‘Two Mysteries in One’. I found the gimmicky book presentation mildly irritating but no doubt some will find it amusing. Of course, it in no way detracts from either of the two yarns (nor does it add anything).

Both the stories are intriguing mysteries which can be devoured at one sitting. Both have many unexpected twists and turns designed to fool the reader – in my case, I was fooled twice.

Last One to Leave follows a group of people caught in a bizarre reality TV show in which participants must have one hand continuously touching a wall. The last one with their hand on the wall wins. It is easy to identify with Ryan, the main character, who is sympathetically drawn and trying to put his life back together after the death of his wife, for the sake of his young daughter. But, perhaps because of the nature of the reality show involved, much of Last One to Leave is not only slow-paced but at times boring. The plot has people standing or sitting around doing nothing much for a considerable time, and it is therefore perhaps not surprising that Stevenson fails to relay the story in either a fast-paced or spellbinding manner. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say there are still many surprises in store for the reader.

Find Us, on the other hand, is fast paced throughout. Its protagonist is Claudette Holloway, an internet detective tasked with finding potential evildoers by using psychology and her knowledge of how people behave socially on the internet. She uses fake identities on social media sites to find individuals who are plotting serious crimes, such as killing people at a school. Holloway never makes any of her online avatars female because if her ‘profile picture is even close to attractive enough for boys to want to interact with her, they always assume she’s an old man trying to bait them … nothing unmasks a fake profile faster than sex’.

Holloway is devastated when her own children disappear and uses her professional skills to try to rescue them. You don’t expect subtle characterisation in this sort of story, but the character comes across as very realistic, which is more than can be said of some of the supporting characters, not least the leading villain.

A mystery story is at its best when sufficient clues are scattered throughout its the telling, so that when the unexpected or unimaginable happens, you do not feel cheated. And when you finally find out ‘whodunnit’, you are forced to admit you had the opportunity to have guessed the culprit correctly. While Find Us is not overburdened with clues, neither is it bereft of them. You will not be disappointed.

Read: Book review: The Work, Bri Lee

As a tentative lover of poetry and a great lover of the short story it is not surprising that I also like the form of the novella. Perhaps it is because of my love of the succinct or, less flatteringly, it’s due to a limited attention span. While this genre has existed since Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron nearly 700 years ago, it has not been met with the enthusiasm it deserves; rarely is there an open novella competition in Australia to encourage nascent writers. So I commend Stevenson for writing two stories in this form, even if I don’t much like one of them. 

Of course, you don’t read mystery novels such as these because they are novellas. But their relative brevity does have its advantages, while there is nothing to distract from their quality. And perhaps, after all, there is something appealing about getting two stories for the price of one, particularly as one of them is pretty good.

3 stars for Find Us, 2 stars for Last One to Leave – overall: 2.5 stars

Fool Me Twice, Benjamin Stevenson
Publisher: Penguin Random House
ISBN: 9781761343346
Format: Paperback
Pages: 155 and 152 pp
Publication date: 28 May 2024 (previously published by Audible 2021, 2022)
RRP: $34.99

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.