The Killer’s Cousin

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Published by: Originally published by Penguin; current edition by Nancy Werlin
Release Date: 1998, 2021
Pages: 240



Winner of the Edgar award for best mystery.

Recently acquitted of murder, seventeen-year-old David has moved to Massachusetts to complete his senior year of high school. His aunt and uncle have offered him shelter—escape from the media's questions and from the uncertain glances of his neighbors and ex-friends.

His attic apartment doesn't feel much like a shelter, though. He sees ghostly shadows at night, his aunt is strangely cold, and his eleven-year-old cousin, Lily, is downright hostile. And as Lily's behavior becomes more and more threatening, David can't help wondering why. What ugly secrets lurk within the walls of Lily's home?

There's one thing David knows with certainty. The more he learns about his cousin Lily, the harder it is to avoid thinking about his own past.

Cover art by Rowan MacColl.


The Killer's Cousin was my second novel, and it (and I) went through five torturous, hideous, and painful drafts over five years before it reached its final form.

In the first two versions of what was then called Cambridge Gothic, the narrator, David Yaffe, was 26 years old and working as a high school history teacher. He was obsessing over an old girlfriend, yes, but she was very much alive. Right from the beginning, however, the story of his cousin Lily and her family was much as it is in the published book.

It took me a long time to understand that the problem in those initial drafts was David. He was a nice guy; he was concerned about his cousin—but somehow that wasn't enough to draw the reader into the mystery. As you read, you thought: “Who cares?”

In despair, I abandoned the novel and went to work on something else. Then, months later, I had a sudden revelation. Quickly, I wrote a prologue in which I made David eight years younger, and dropped dark hints about his own past.

In short, I turned David into a sympathetic narrator—and tied the two parts of the story together—by making him a killer.

Make of that what you will.

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  • Winner of the 1999 Edgar award for best young adult mystery
  • An American Library Association "Best of the Best: Best 100 YA books of the Past 10 Years) selection, 2005.
  • Starred reviews in Booklist, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Voya, and Kliatt
  • An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
  • An ALA Quick Pick—Top 10
  • An ALA Teens' Top 10 Best Book Pick
  • IRA Young Adult Choice
  • A Booklist Editor's Choice
  • A Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book
  • Winner of the 2001 Garden State (New Jersey) Teen Book Award
  • Winner of Black-Eyed Susan Award (Maryland), High School division, 2000-2001
  • Honorable Mention "Silver Kiss" in the Golden and Silver Kisses 2002 award program, from the Dutch Stichting CPNB.
  • Texas TAYSHAS high school reading list, 2000
  • Evergreen (Washington State) Young Adult Book Award list, 2001
  • South Carolina Young Adult Book award list, 2000-2001
  • Eliot Rosewater Indiana High School Book award list, 2000-2001
  • Tennessee Volunteer State Book Award, YA master reading list, 2002-2003
  • Pennsylvania Young Adult recommended list, 2000-2001
  • South Dakota Young Adult Reading Program list, 2000
  • A New York Public Library Best Book for the Teen Age
  • A Bank Street College Best Book of the Year
  • A Parent's Guide to Children's Media selection


PDF Discussion Guide

I sat down. "I don't remember. You'd better tell me."

My father nodded. We looked at each other straight on for possibly the first time, neither of us looking away.

He said, "I was at the inquest. It--Kathy's death--was ugly. She ingested a glass of cleaning solvent. Ammonia of some kind. She was taking a bubble bath, and apparently had the glass all ready next to the tub. She drank half of it--more wasn't required. It burned out her throat, and she sank down under the water. The actual cause of death was drowning. There was water in her lungs.

"And Lily . . . Well, Kathy had locked the door to the attic but Lily knew where the key was. She had sneaked in before. She liked to hang out here when Kathy wasn't in."

Now, that sounded like Lily to me. "So she thought Kathy was out?" I asked.

"I think so," said my father. "Her testimony was a little confused. She was only seven. The judge was very gentle with her."

"What did she see?" I asked.

"At first she didn't realize Kathy was there. The bathroom door was closed. Then she heard a noise . . . probably the glass crashing to the floor." My mother made a sound, a soft involuntary mew, and my father paused for a moment, glancing at her, before continuing.

"Lily said she burst into the bathroom--yelling 'Boo!' or something. The bathroom door wasn't locked. You understand that it would all have happened very quickly. Kathy would have been beneath the water already. Lily said she thought Kathy was playing a game, holding her breath under the water. But she didn't come up."

"Lily got all wet," said my mother. "She tried to pull Kathy out . . ."

The ice cream I'd eaten earlier threatened to push its way back up my throat.

"Lily even tried to pick up the glass," my father said. "But of course it had shattered on the tile when Kathy dropped it, so Lily's hands got cut up. And her knees . . . She kept saying it was her fault. Children that age, they often think they're responsible for everything."

I had a vivid picture of Lily kneeling on the shards by the tub, pulling desperately at Kathy. "Okay," I said. "That's enough." But then I thought of something else.

"This was about Kathy's boyfriend?" I asked. "The one who dumped her?"

"Yes," said my mother.

"Well," said my father, the stickler for detail, "that's what the inquest concluded. The letter from him was on the kitchen counter."

I asked, "Did Kathy write a note or something?"

"No," he said, then added, "I wish she had. It would have been . . . not easier, perhaps, but more final." He shrugged. "People usually leave letters, but not always. This could have been a sudden impulse. Probably Kathy didn't really intend to die. Just to get sick. To scare her boyfriend, perhaps. And maybe Vic and Julia, too. They'd been fighting."

I found myself staring across the room into the bathroom. Its door was ajar, and I could see the edge of the tub inside.

"Why were Vic and Julia fighting with Kathy?" I asked.

"They'd been fighting since she dropped out of college," my mother said. "She'd been commuting to U. Mass, Boston. Do you remember?"

"Something, yeah," I said. What I suddenly did remember were my mother's comments about it. Julia won't pull her claws out of Kathy. Mark my words: That girl will never get away.

"So they were angry at Kathy for dropping out of school?" I asked.

"Yes. They'd been letting her live here rent free. But when she dropped out and got a job, Julia said she had to start paying." My mother's tone dripped disapproval.

"That doesn't sound unreasonable," I said, and heard my father's grunt of agreement.

"She wasn't earning very much money," retorted my mother. "And I think, with a little understanding and support, she would have gone back to school. But Julia's attitude made her dig in harder. Julia always makes you want to do the opposite of what she says."

That was true. I moved on. "So they fought about college and about rent money? And Julia and Vic were in agreement?"

"Well," my mother said. "My brother . . ."

I waited.

"At first, Vic didn't take the rent money from Kathy. She'd give him a check and he'd deposit it, but then he'd give her back the cash. Julia didn't know."

"Tell him, Eileen," said my father.

"I was going to!" my mother said. But then she sighed. "Oh, God. This is embarrassing. David, it was my idea. Vic asked me about charging Kathy rent . . . he wasn't sure . . . so I told him to give Kathy back the money. Secretly."

"It was a spectacular piece of meddling," observed my father calmly. "Your mother outdid herself."

"I was only thinking of Kathy!" my mother protested.

"You were thinking of needling Julia, and you know it."

"Oh, and you're so perfect yourself!" Then her voice changed. "I've said I was sorry. I've said it again and again . . . to Vic, to Julia. I couldn't be sorrier."

"Julia found out?" I asked, even though I already knew. It explained so much.

"Naturally," said my father.

"Shut up, Stuart," said my mother. "Yes, David, she found out. Kathy told her--yelled it at her--in the middle of a fight."

I could picture it. Perhaps they had had that fight right here, in this living room. Perhaps Julia had said, Your father and I . . . and Kathy had flung back, Dad doesn't agree with you! He agrees with me! Do you know what he does? Do you know . . .

It was odd. I could almost hear her. Almost see her as she screamed at Julia, her shoulders stiff like Lily's so often were. Kathy? I thought. Kathy, are you there? Are you here?

I heard it then, plainly. Clearly. The humming.

"David?" said my mother.

I looked up. "Yes?"

"Julia has never forgiven me," my mother said. "But I am most sincerely sorry. I've told her. I told her then, and after Kathy . . . and I've written . . ." Her voice trailed off.

"I understand," I said.

"I thought I meant well. But your father is right, too. Julia and I . . . I'd gotten into the habit of, well, I was always trying to score points . . . It went too far. I went too far. I know that."

I said, "It's okay," and I heard her sigh. I listened as my mother told the rest of the story.

After the incident over the rent, Kathy had begun paying for real. Julia collected the checks, and kept a sharp eye on the checking account to ensure that Vic gave Kathy no extra money. My mother believed that this, and not Kathy's death, was the true beginning of Vic and Julia's estrangement. And then Kathy's new boyfriend had entered the scene.

"He wasn't a nice Catholic boy," said my mother. "Or even a nice Jewish boy. But I don't know a lot about it. My brother . . . wasn't talking very much to me right then. He had long hair. The boy, I mean." Her eyes skittered away from my own hair, longer than it had ever been. "An earring too. Of course no job. And of course they were . . ." She gave me a quick look, swallowed, and finished bravely. ". . . having sex."

It was an odd moment to realize I loved her, my sturdily Catholic--despite the conversion--mother; I grinned at her. For a second, as our eyes held, I thought we might both laugh. Then she ducked her head. "Well. It was all perfectly ordinary, really. Julia overreacted. Anyway, it only lasted three months. But by the end, nobody was talking, even to argue."

Nobody talking. Typical Shaughnessy. Typical Yaf-

I said quickly, "And then Kathy died."

"Yes," said my mother. "Yes."

That was all.

After a while, my parents went to bed, and I flung myself onto the sofa. Then I got up, and prowled into the bathroom; looked at the tub. It needed a good scrubbing. I had never bothered.

If I closed my eyes I could almost see Kathy there. See the shadow; hear the humming.

All at once I couldn't bear being in the house. I put on my running clothes and headed out, fast.

The Shaughnessy apartment was dark. The only indication that Vic and Julia were there was the fact that their bedroom door was closed.

Lily's door was also shut. For some reason I paused outside it for a few seconds. It wasn't all Lily's fault that she was so odd. Terrible things had happened in her short life.

I was halfway down the stairs when I realized that I hadn't asked my parents about Lily. What had been going on with her while Kathy quit school, got a job and a boyfriend, and fought with her parents? Very likely my mother and father would not have known. What was there to know about a seven-year-old? That she had been in second grade? That she had liked to sneak into the attic where her big sister lived, to play at being grown-up?

I should live here, Lily had said of the attic, on the day I moved in. It's all wrong.

And then I wondered: Why would she want to live in the place where she'd seen her sister die? --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.