liane moriarty

Game, Set, Murder (?): Read the first excerpt from Liane Moriarty's next blockbuster novel Apples Never Fall

The book, out Sept. 14, is a high-wire act that blends marital drama, a long con, a potential murder — and competitive tennis.
By Seija Rankin
August 20, 2021 at 09:00 AM EDT

Everything Liane Moriarty touches turns to gold. Or rather, it becomes a bestselling book and a hit TV series (think: Big Little Lies). The Australian author's next project, which is already destined for the small screen, is a throwback to her best-known — and most beloved — material: family secrets. In this excerpt from Apples Never Fall, you'll meet the Delaneys. They're a seemingly impeccable group of tennis-playing suburbanites, the envy of all their neighbors. There's just one small problem: Matriarch Joy has gone missing, and her husband, Stan, looks all too plausible as the culprit. Here, read the exclusive first excerpt from the book, and catch Liane on her virtual book tour for Apples Never Fall September 14-28 (find out more details here).

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Credit: NIGEL BUCHANAN

Two men and a woman sat in the far corner of a café underneath the framed photo of sunflowers at dawn in Tuscany. They were basketball-player tall, and as they leaned forward over the mosaic-topped round table, their foreheads almost touched. They spoke in low, intense voices, as if their conversation involved international espionage, which was incongruous in this small suburban café on a pleasant summery Saturday morning, with freshly baked banana and pear bread scenting the air and soft rock drifting languidly from the stereo to the accompaniment of the espresso machine's industrious hiss and grind.

"I think they're brothers and sisters," said the waitress to her boss. The waitress was an only child and intrigued by siblings.

"They look really similar." "They're taking too long to order," said her boss, who was one of eight and found siblings not at all intriguing. After last week's violent hailstorm, there had been blessed rain for nearly a week. Now the fires were under control, the smoke had cleared along with people's faces, and customers were finally out and about again, cash in hand, so they needed to be turning over tables fast.

"They said they haven't had a chance to look at the menus."

"Ask them again."

The waitress approached the table once more, noting how they each sat in the same distinctive way, with their ankles hooked around the front legs of their chairs, as if to prevent them from sliding away.

"Excuse me?"

They didn't hear her. They were all talking at once, their voices overlapping. They were definitely related. They even sounded similar: low, deep, husky-edged voices. People with sore throats and secrets.

"She's not technically missing. She sent us that text."

"I just can't believe she's not answering her phone. She always answers."

"Dad mentioned her new bike is gone."

"What? That's bizarre."

"So…she just cycled off down the street and into the sunset?"

"But she didn't take her helmet. Which I find very weird."

"I think it's time we reported her missing."

"It's over a week now. That's too long."

"Like I said, she's not technically—"

"She is the very definition of missing, because we don't know where she is."

The waitress raised her voice to a point that was perilously close to rude.

"Are you ready to order yet?"

They didn't hear her.

"Has anyone been over to the house yet?"

"Dad told me please don't come over. He said he's 'very busy.' "

"Very busy? What's he so busy doing?"

The waitress shuffled alongside them, in between the chairs and the wall, so that one of them might see her.

"You know what could happen if we reported her missing?" The better looking of the two men spoke. He wore a long-sleeved linen shirt rolled up to the elbows, shorts, and shoes without socks. He was in his early thirties, the waitress guessed, with a goatee and the low-level charismatic charm of a reality star or areal estate agent.

"They'd suspect Dad."

"Suspect Dad of what?" asked the other man, a shabbier, chunkier, cheaper version of the first. Instead of a goatee, he just needed a shave.

"That he…you know." The expensive-version brother drew his finger across his neck. The waitress went very still. This was the best conversation she'd overheard since she'd started waitressing.

"Jesus, Troy." The cheaper-version brother exhaled. "That's not funny."

The other man shrugged. "The police will ask if they argued. Dad said they did argue."

"But surely—"

"Maybe Dad did have something to do with it," said the youngest of the four, a woman wearing flip-flops and a short orange dress dotted with white daisies over a swimsuit tied at the neck. Her hair was dyed blue (the waitress coveted that exact shade), and it was tied back in a sticky, wet, tangled knot at her neck. There was a fine sheen of sandy sunscreen on her arms as if she'd just that moment walked off the beach, even though they were at least a forty-minute drive from the coast.

"Maybe he snapped. Maybe he finally snapped."

"Stop it, both of you," said the other woman, who the waitress realized now was a regular: extra-large, extra-hot soy flat white. Her name was Brooke. Brooke with an e. They wrote customers' names on their coffee lids, and this woman had once pointed out, in a diffident but firm way, as if she couldn't help herself, that there should be an e at the end of her name. She was polite but not chatty and generally just a little stressed, like she already knew the day wasn't going her way. She paid with a five-dollar note and always left the fifty-cent piece in the tip jar. She wore the same thing every day: a navy polo shirt, shorts, and sneakers with socks. Today she was dressed for the weekend, in a skirt and top, but she still had the look of an off-duty member of the armed forces, or a PE teacher who wouldn't fall for any of your excuses about cramps.

"Dad would never hurt Mum," she said to her sister. "Never."

"Oh my God, of course he wouldn't. I'm not serious!" The blue-haired girl held up her hands, and the waitress saw the rumpled skin around her eyes and mouth and realized she wasn't young at all, she was just dressed young. She was a middle-aged person in disguise. From a distance you'd guess twenty; from close up, you'd think maybe forty. It felt like a trick.

"Mum and Dad have a really strong marriage," said Brooke with an e, and something about the resentfully deferential pitch of her voice made the waitress think that in spite of her sensible clothes, she might be the youngest of the four. The better-looking brother gave her a quizzical look.

"Did we grow up in the same house?"

"I don't know. Did we? Because I never saw any signs of violence…I mean, God!"

"Anyway, I'm not the one suggesting it. I'm saying other people might suggest it." The blue-haired woman looked up and caught sight of the waitress.

"Sorry! We still haven't looked!" She picked up the laminated menu.

"That's okay," said the waitress. She wanted to hear more.

"Also, we're all a bit distracted. Our mother is missing."

"Oh no. That's…worrying?" The waitress couldn't quite work out how to react. They didn't seem that worried. These people were, like, all a lot older than her—wouldn't their mother therefore be properly old? Like a little old lady? How did a little old lady go missing? Dementia? Brooke with an e winced. She said to her sister, "Don't tell people that."

"I apologize. Our mother is possibly missing," amended the blue-haired woman. "We have temporarily mislaid our mother."

"You need to retrace your steps." The waitress went along with the joke. "Where did you see her last?" There was an awkward pause. They all looked at her with identical liquid brown eyes and sober expressions. They all had the sort of eyelashes that were so dark they looked like they were wearing eyeliner.

"You know, you're right. That's exactly what we need to do." The blue-haired woman nodded slowly as if she were taking the flippant remark seriously. "Retrace our steps."

"We'll all try the apple crumble with cream," interrupted the expensive version brother. "And then we'll let you know what we think."

"Good one." The cheaper-version brother tapped the edge of his menu on the side of the table.

"For breakfast?" said Brooke, but she smiled wryly as if at some private joke related to apple crumble, and they all handed over their menus in the relieved, "that's sorted, then" way that people handed back menus, glad to be rid of them. The waitress wrote 4 x App Crum on her notepad, and straightened the pile of menus."Listen," said the cheaper-version brother. "Has anyone called her?"

"Coffees?" asked the waitress.

"We'll all have long blacks," said the expensive-version brother, and the waitress made eye contact with Brooke with an e to give her the chance to say, No, actually, that's not my coffee, I always have an extra-large, extra-hot soy flat white, but she was busy turning on her brother.

"Of course we've called her. A million times. I've texted. I've emailed. Haven't you?"

"So four long blacks?" said the waitress. No one responded. "Okay, so four long blacks."

"Not Mum. Her." The cheaper-version brother put his elbows on the table and pressed his fingertips to his temples.

"Savannah. Has anyone tried to get in contact with her?" The waitress had no more excuses to linger and eavesdrop. Was Savannah another sibling? Why wasn't she here today? Was she the family outcast? The prodigal daughter? Is that why her name seemed to land between them with such portentousness? And had anyone called her? The waitress walked to the counter, hit the bell with the flat of her hand, and slapped down their order.

Last September

It was close to eleven on a chilly, breezy Tuesday night. Pale pink cherry blossoms skittered and whirled as the taxi drove slowly past renovated period homes, each with a midrange luxury sedan in the driveway and an orderly trio of different-colored trash cans at the curb. A ring-tailed possum scuttled across a sandstone fence, caught in the taxi's headlights. A small dog yelped once and went quiet. The air smelled of woodsmoke, cut grass, and slow-cooked lamb. Most of the houses were dark except for the vigilant winking of security cameras. Joy Delaney, at number nine, packed her dishwasher while she listened to the latest episode of The Migraine Guy Podcast on the fancy new wireless headphones her son had given her for her birthday.

Joy was a tiny, trim, energetic woman with shiny shoulder-length white hair. She could never remember if she was sixty-eight or sixty-nine, and sometimes she even allowed the possibility that she was sixty-seven. (She was sixty-nine.) Right now she wore jeans and a black cardigan over a striped T-shirt, with woolly socks. She supposedly looked "great for her age." Young people in shops often told her this. She always wanted to say, "You don't know my age, you darling idiot, so how do you know I look great for it?"

Her husband, Stan Delaney, sat in his recliner in the living room, an ice pack on each knee, watching a documentary about the world's greatest bridges while he worked his way through a packet of sweet chili crackers, dipping each one into a tub of cream cheese.

Their elderly Staffordshire terrier, Steffi (named after Steffi Graf, because as a puppy she'd been quick on her feet), sat on the kitchen floor next to Joy, chewing surreptitiously on a fragment of newspaper. Over the last year Steffi had begun obsessively chewing on any paper she could find in the house, which was apparently a psychological condition in dogs, possibly brought on by stress, although no one knew what Steffi had to be stressed about. At least Steffi's paper habit was more acceptable than that of her neighbor Caro's cat, Otis, who had begun pilfering clothing from homes in the cul-de-sac, including, mortifyingly, underwear, which Caro was too embarrassed to return, except to Joy, of course.

Joy knew her giant headphones made her resemble an alien, but she didn't care. After years of begging her children for quiet, she now couldn't endure it. The silence howled through her so-called empty nest. Her nest had been empty for many years, so she should have been used to it, but last year they'd sold their business, and it felt like everything ended, juddered to a stop. In her search for noise, she'd become addicted to podcasts. Often she went to bed with her headphones still on so she could be rocked to sleep by the lullaby of a chatty, authoritative voice.

She didn't suffer from migraines herself, but her youngest daughter did, and Joy listened to The Migraine Guy Podcast both for informative tips she might be able to pass on to Brooke, and also as a kind of penance. Over recent years she had come to feel almost sick with regret for the dismissive, impatient way she'd first responded to Brooke's childhood headaches, as they used to call them.

"Regret" can be my memoir's theme, she thought, as she tried to shove the cheese grater into the dishwasher next to the frying pan. A Regretful Life, by Joy Delaney. Last night she'd been to the first session of a "So You Want to Write a Memoir" course at the local evening college. Joy didn't want to write a memoir but Caro did, so she was keeping her company. Caro was widowed and shy and didn't want to go on her own. Joy would help Caro make a friend (she already had her eye on someone suitable) and then she'd drop out. Their teacher had explained that you began the process of writing a memoir by choosing a theme, and then it was simply a case of finding anecdotes to support the theme. "Maybe your theme is 'I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks but look at me now,' " the teacher said, and all the ladies in their tailored pants and pearl earrings nodded solemnly and wrote wrong side of the tracks in their brand-new notebooks.

"Well, at least your memoir's theme is obvious," Caro told Joy on the way home.

"Is it?" said Joy.

"It's tennis. Your theme is tennis."

"That's not a theme," said Joy. "A theme is more like 'revenge' or 'success against the odds' or—"

"You could call it Game, Set, and Match: The Story of a Tennis Family."

"But that's…we're not tennis stars," said Joy. "We just ran a tennis school, and a local tennis club. We're not the Williams family." For some reason she found Caro's comment annoying. Even upsetting. Caro looked astonished.

"What are you talking about? Tennis is your family's passion. People are always saying, 'Follow your passion!' And I think to myself, Oh, if only I had a passion. Like Joy."

Joy had changed the subject.

Now she looked up from the dishwasher and remembered Troy, as a young boy, standing right here in this very kitchen, racquet gripped like a weapon, face rosy with rage, his beautiful brown eyes full of blame and tears he would not let himself cry, shouting, "I hate tennis!"

"Ooh, sacrilege!" Amy had said, because her role as the oldest child was to narrate every family argument and use big words the other kids didn't understand, while Brooke, still little and adorable, had burst into inevitable tears, and Logan's face became blank and moronic.

"You don't hate tennis," Joy had told him. It was an order. She had meant: You can't hate tennis, Troy. She'd meant: I don't have the time or the strength to let you hate tennis. Joy gave her head a little shake to dislodge the memory, and tried to return her attention to the podcast.

"…zigzag lines that float across your field of vision, shimmering spots or stars, people who have migraine aura symptoms say that…"

Troy hadn't really hated tennis. Some of their happiest family memories were on the court. Most of their happiest memories. Some of their worst memories were on the court too, but come on now, Troy still played. If he'd really hated tennis he wouldn't still be playing in his thirties.

Was tennis her life's theme?

Maybe Caro was right. She and Stan might never have met if not for tennis. More than half a century ago now. A birthday party in a small, crowded house. Heads bounced in time to "Popcorn" by Hot Butter. Eighteen-year-old Joy gripped the chunky green stem of her wine glass, which was filled to the brim with warm Moselle.

"Where's Joy? You should meet Joy. She just won some big tournament."

Those were the words that unfastened the tight semicircle of people surrounding the boy with his back against the wall. He was a giant, freakishly tall and big-shouldered, with a mass of long curly black hair tied back in a ponytail, a cigarette in one hand, a can of beer in the other. Athletic boys could still smoke like chimneys in the seventies. He had a dimple that only made an appearance when he saw Joy.

"We should have a hit sometime," he said. She'd never heard a voice like it, not from a boy of her own generation. It was a voice so deep and slow, people made fun of it and tried to imitate it. They said Stan sounded like Johnny Cash. He didn't do it on purpose. It was just the way he spoke.He didn't speak much, but everything he said sounded important. They weren't the only tennis players at that party, just the only champions. It was destiny, as inevitable as a fairy tale. If they hadn't met that night they would have met eventually. Tennis was a small world.

They played their first match that weekend. She lost 6–4, 6–4, and then went right ahead and lost her virginity to him, even though her mother had warned her about the importance of withholding sex if she ever liked a boy: "Why buy a cow when you can get the milk for free?" (Her daughters shrieked when they heard that phrase.)

Joy told Stan she only went to bed with him because of his serve. It was a magnificent serve. She still admired it, waiting for that split second when time stopped and Stan became a sculpture of a tennis player: back arched, ball suspended, racquet behind his head, and then…wham.

Stan said he only went to bed with her because of her decisive volley, and then he said, that deep, slow voice in her ear, No, that's not true, your volley needs work, you crowd the net, I went to bed with you because as soon as I saw those legs I knew I wanted them wrapped around my back, and Joy swooned, she thought that was so wicked and poetic, although she did not appreciate the criticism of her volley.

"…this causes the release of neurotransmitters…"

She looked at the grater. It was covered in carrot, which the dishwasher wouldn't wash off. She rinsed it in the sink. "Why am I doing your job for you?" she said to the dishwasher, and thought of herself in pre-dishwasher days, standing at this sink, rubber gloves in hot dishwater, a skyscraper of dirty plates by her side.

Her past kept bumping up against her present lately. Yesterday she'd woken from a nap in a panic, thinking she'd forgotten to pick up one of the children from school. It took her a good minute to remember that all of her children were adults now: adults with wrinkles and mortgages, degrees and travel plans.

The Migraine Guy spoke seductively into Joy 's ears, "Let's talk about magnesium."

"Good idea. Let's do that," said Joy.

There was no way for the frying pan and grater to fit together. There was no solution. The grater would have to miss out. It was clean anyway. She straightened up from the dishwasher to discover her husband standing right in front of her, like he'd teleported himself.

"Jesus—bloody—what the—?" she shrieked. She pushed her headphones down onto her neck and put her hand to her thumping heart. "Don't creep up on me like that!"

"Why is someone knocking on the door?" Stan's lips were orange from the chili crackers. There were damp circles on the knees of his jeans from the melting ice packs. It was aggravating just to look up at him, especially because he was looking down at her with an accusing expression, as if the knock on the door was her fault. Joy's eyes went to the clock on the kitchen wall. It was far too late for a delivery or a market researcher. Too late for a friend or family member to drop by, and no one really did that anymore, not without calling first. Joy considered her husband. Maybe he was the one with dementia.

She knew from her research that the spouse must be patient and kind. "I didn't hear anything," she said, patiently and kindly. She would be an excellent carer, although she might waitlist him at a nice nursing home sooner rather than later.

"I heard a knock," insisted Stan, and his jaw shifted back and forth in that way that indicated annoyance. But then Joy heard it too: thump, thump, thump. Like someone banging a closed fist on their front door. Their doorbell had been broken for years and people often knocked impatiently after they gave up on the bell, but this had the quality of an emergency. Her eyes met Stan's and without saying a word they both headed for the front door, not running but walking fast down the long hallway, quick, quick, quick. Steffi trotted along beside them, panting with excitement. Joy's socks slipped on the floorboards, and she felt that all three of them, man, woman, and dog, shared an invigorating sense of urgency. They were needed. There must be a crisis of some sort. They would fix the crisis, because even though there were no children living at home, they still had that mindset: We are the grown-ups. We are The Fixers.

Maybe there was even pleasure in that rapid walk to the door because it had been a while since any of the children had asked for money or advice, or even a lift to the airport.

Bang, bang, bang. "Coming!" called out Stan.

Fragments of memories flashed through Joy's mind: Troy arriving home from school when he was around eight or nine, hammering on the door and hollering, "FBI! Open up!" He did this for years every time he came to a door, thought he was so funny. Amy frantically ringing the bell, back when it worked, because she'd lost her house key yet again and was always in a hurry to get to the bathroom.

Stan got there ahead of her. He click clacked the deadlock with an efficient twist of his wrist and threw open the door.

A sobbing young woman lurched forward as though she'd been resting her forehead on the door and fell straight into Stan's arms, like a daughter.

Excerpted from Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty, to be published Sept. 14, 2021, by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2021by Liane Moriarty. All rights reserved.