The bar is crowded as the local band plays and dancers two-step across the floor. Susan Lentigo looks around the room and spots familiar faces: Her best friend, Terri. Her mother, Lenore, drinking a little too much as usual. The new man in town everyone thinks she should date. And three of her daughter’s best friends from grade school, all grown up now with families of their own.

Susan chokes back tears as she remembers why she’s here. It’s a fundraiser. Everyone’s come to offer support — and donations  — for Susan’s trip to attend the execution of the man who killed her seven-year-old daughter 20 years before. 

The Necklace by Matt Witten (Oceanview) is a non-stop psychological thriller that builds tension right up to its shocking conclusion. Chapters alternate between the time of the murder and the present, a tricky technique at best, but the story unwinds smoothly and quickly, adding details and overlooked clues as it speeds along.

A TRIP TO WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

As Susan sets off to drive the 1,500 miles from Upstate New York to North Dakota, bittersweet memories flood back: The happy family she once had. Her husband, Danny. The daughter they’d loved so much. She remembers the day she and Amy bought beads in a craft store so Amy could make a necklace with a purple dolphin and a pink duck, her favorite colors. “I’m never gonna take this necklace off,” Amy tells her mother, “Not even when I die.”

The day Amy disappeared, Susan was called in for an extra shift at the diner where she waitressed, and Danny, a real estate agent, was working late preparing a house for a showing. Susan’s mother Lenore agreed to pick up her granddaughter after school, but canceled by leaving a message Susan never got. 

The search for Amy ends in tragedy when her body is found raped and strangled in a wooded area far from home. And the necklace is gone. 

As the investigation begins, everyone is suspect, especially Lenore’s unsavory boyfriends. Police arrest a man who confesses under pressure during a long FBI interrogation; although he later recants, his trial ends in a death sentence.

Grief overwhelms Susan, and she has a psychotic break. She spends three weeks in a mental hospital, followed by months full of days she can’t get out of bed or off the lumpy sofa in the back room of the diner. “You needed someone to be strong for you,” Danny tells her before their divorce.

On her journey to the execution, Susan overcomes unforeseen challenges, at one point ending up penniless in an all-night Midwest diner with an ex-con biker counterman, and a tattooed teenage girl who’d just committed a crime to help bring the real killer to justice.

FROM THE BOOKSHELF TO THE BIG SCREEN

The book’s characters jump off the page, and they’re headed to a screen near you. The Necklace has been optioned for film by Appian Way and Cartel Pictures, with Leonardo DiCaprio attached as producer. Once they find a director, says Witten, the project could move fast. “I’d like a director who is really good at action sequences and catching the excitement, and the small moments between people,” says Witten, who also wrote the screenplay.

Who would he like to play his unlikely heroine, Susan? “An actress in their 50’s — they don’t get as much work as they should — somebody you could really believe has had hard times and struggles. Somebody who will fight the FBI for justice and put herself in physical danger for justice,” he says. “Someone who can portray tremendous strength.”

Witten’s novel reads true because he’s spent much of his life in the Adirondacks area where the murder takes place, and he’s captured the economic hardships and drama of its people. His webpage, Facebook and other social media accounts have pictures of the real life locations that inspired him. 

Witten has written for television including House, Pretty Little Liars, and Law & Order. He’s also the author of the Jacob Burns series of amateur sleuth/small-town cozies, the first of which, Breakfast at Madeline’s, earned him a Malice Domestic Award for debut novel.

Warning: Clear your schedule before you start reading The Necklace. It’s a non-stop ride. 

Visit Matt Witten’s BookTrib author profile page.

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Matt Witten is a TV writer, novelist, playwright and screenwriter who has been writing for television for the past twenty years, including such shows as House, Pretty Little Liars and Law & Order. Matt has also taught TV writing part-time at UCLA Extension. His novel The Necklace has been optioned for film by Appian Way and Cartel Pictures, with Leonardo DiCaprio attached as producer.