A Flaw in the Design

A Novel

About the Book

A professor’s life is turned upside down when he takes in his charming, wildly dangerous nephew, whose wealthy parents have just died under mysterious circumstances, in this propulsive, edge-of-your-seat debut psychological thriller.

“An absolute page-turner . . . I read it in a single sitting.”—Miranda Cowley Heller, bestselling author of The Paper Palace
The cleverest psychopaths hide in plain sight.

Gil is living a quiet life as a creative writing professor in a bucolic Vermont town, when he receives some shocking news: His sister and her husband have been killed in a car accident, and their only son is coming to live with him and his family.
Gil and his wife are apprehensive about taking in seventeen-year-old Matthew. Yes, he has just lost both his parents, but they haven’t seen him in seven years—and the last time the families were together, Matthew lured their young daughter into a terrifying, life-threatening situation. Since that incident, Gil has been estranged from his sister and her flashy, wealthy banker husband. 

Now Matthew is their charge, living under their roof.
The boy seems charming, smart, and urbane, if strangely unaffected by his parents’ deaths. Gil hopes they can put the past behind them, though he’s surprised when Matthew signs up for his creative writing class. Then Matthew begins turning in chilling stories about the imagined deaths of Gil’s family and his own parents. Bewildered and panicked, Gil ultimately decides he must take matters into his own hands—before life imitates art.
Told in limber, mesmerizing prose, A Flaw in the Design is a twisting novel of suspense that brilliantly explores the tensions surrounding class, family, and the drive to control one’s own story.
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Praise for A Flaw in the Design

“This American debut explores family and class tensions in a fightover who controls the narrative. . . Great characterization and plenty of genuine suspense in a psychological thriller par excellence.”—The Guardian

“A compulsive, richly imagined literary thriller.”The Irish Times

“I read [A Flaw in the Design] at speed in a state of high stress and anxiety, as the tension built inexorably and I began to feel just as haunted (hunted?) as the author’s protagonist. . . It's all horribly claustrophobic, in the best possible way.”The Observer

“This book has a complex premise which includes many of the issues we are grappling with as a society.”—CrimeReads

A Flaw in the Design is not only a deep dive into the things that can rock the cradle of a family but also an absolute page-turner. I read it in a single sitting.”—Miranda Cowley Heller, bestselling author of The Paper Palace

“A literary thriller of the highest order. Oates manages, with wisdom and insight, to explore the vulnerability of parenthood, the economic injustice of New York City, middle-age compromise, and the fallibility of storytelling, all while telling a heart-pounding tale that commanded my attention from the first sentence to the last.”—Julia May Jonas, author of Vladimir

“Brilliantly constructed and psychologically astute, this novel had me turning pages late into the night and left me reeling in the aftermath of its stunning conclusion. Bravo!”—Antoine Wilson, author of Mouth to Mouth

“Get ready for a wild ride. Brutal and compelling, A Flaw in the Design is the story of a family driven toward destruction . . . This novel swerves and shocks before smashing into you, a T-bone collision you can hold in your hands.”—Julia Phillips, author of Disappearing Earth

“Menace and mendacity vie with the mundane in this skillfully told tale about ambition and grief and envy. A Flaw in the Design is an impressive debut. Cue the sequel.”—Alice McDermott, author of The Ninth Hour

“What happens when a (possibly murderous) sociopath takes a writing workshop? This is the premise of Nathan Oates’s delicious, inexorable, fast-paced tale of obsession—a thriller that will keep you reading till the end.”—Karan Mahajan, author of The Association of Small Bombs

“A gripping, twisty psychological thriller about the destructiveness of toxic masculinity hell-bent on protecting its own. I couldn’t put it down.”—Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, New York Times bestselling author of Bittersweet and Fierce Little Thing

“A highly literary yet suspenseful debut from Oates, who weaves a stunning tale of obsession, with a surprising ending that begs for a sequel. Perfect for fans of Mary Kubica and Shari Lapena.”—Booklist

“This immersive page-turner cleverly juxtaposes the writing of short fiction with the production of stories in people’s minds. Oates is definitely a writer to watch.”Publishers Weekly
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A Flaw in the Design


January 2018

there was still time to turn and walk out, pretend he’d never come. The screen, perched on a pillar near baggage claim, listed the New York flight as arrived. Gate 3. Any minute, passengers would come down the escalator in front of him. But right now, he could leave. Escape before his nephew spotted him. Concoct some excuse to tell Molly: The flight was canceled; no, he wasn’t answering his phone. Weird, right? Well, maybe tomorrow. Except no, not really. After all, he was the boy’s guardian, and they’d track him down. Or the boy would find his own way to their house and that’d be worse, because then he’d know how much Gil feared him. Hated him. Which was the wrong way to think. He should stop. He couldn’t stop.

A loosely strung crowd came down the escalator, hurrying through the nearly empty terminal to claim spots at the baggage carousel. Already it was too late. There he was: Matthew, in a short black down coat that was too light for the Vermont winter, a bright white shirt beneath; hair styled in a swoosh; on his face a smirk, the slightest turn of his lips, familiar enough to bring loathing into Gil’s throat.

He’d known that the boy would look different after all this time, but he wasn’t prepared for this. Once a lanky kid, he was now over six feet, a couple of inches taller than Gil. Matthew stepped around an old man who fumbled with a coat and a rolling bag, bored annoyance moving over his face, as if this was routine, as if he was a young businessman sent from the city to check on some far-­flung investment.

Gil waved, and in the acknowledging tilt of Matthew’s head he caught a glimpse of his sister. Sharon. Who was dead. Who’d left him this. Her son.

“Well, hello, welcome,” Gil said, opening his arms, but the boy stepped back, as if he didn’t recognize this gesture, or the man behind it. “How was the flight?”

“The flight?” Matthew said, frowning at the darkened check-­in kiosks, the empty car rental desks, the snow blowing in streaks across the asphalt outside, his dopey uncle in his black parka and clumpy winter boots. “I guess it was like most flights. Fine, in that I don’t remember anything about it.”

“That’s great,” Gil said. “Do you have any bags?” He pointed at the crowd staring forlornly at the unmoving gray belt.

“Nope. All set,” Matthew said, tugging at his shoulder strap.

Should Gil offer to carry it? But the bag was small and easily managed, as if the boy was only here for a weekend. Matthew gave him an indifferent squint, knowing he must wait to be led, though the dynamics that subordinated him to this person were clearly a miscarriage of justice, given their true stations in life. Or Gil was just being a dickhead. Maybe Matthew was standoffish because he felt awkward: coming to live with his uncle he hadn’t seen in years. That might explain the constricted approximation of a smile. He expected Gil, the adult, to take the lead.

“I’m parked just there in short term,” Gil said, turning toward glass doors that held their reflections—­blurred and broken by the mounded snow at the curb, the flash of passing headlights—­which might’ve been a tableau from New York. A homeless man (Gil), begging from an annoyed young banker (Matthew).

“You might want to zip up. It’s pretty cold,” Gil said.

“I’ll probably survive,” Matthew said, as the glass panes slid apart and freezing air gusted into the terminal.

Waiting for a cab to roll through the crosswalk, Gil caught another glimpse of his sister. The boy had Sharon’s profile, the high arch of her cheeks, flushed now with the cold, her gray-­blue eyes. Like it or not, Matthew was family, his only nephew, so he should try to see as the boy must: a salt-­streaked SUV parked at the curb, the pickup area otherwise empty, a single cop car parked across the way leaking a wisp of exhaust, the lights sharpened in the gusting cold that cut through his coat. A provincial airport in the frozen, depopulated north, where he’d been sent to live among strangers.

Okay, Gil had f***ed up the greeting. But he could do better. All of them, Molly, the girls, they could all make this kid feel welcome after what he’d suffered. Except Gil couldn’t help noting, as he pointed the way to the Subaru, that Matthew didn’t seem in the least upset. Annoyed. Put out. But not sad. Not destroyed, as any kid should be after losing both parents less than a month ago.

An accident on Sixth Avenue. Their sports car smashed nearly flat by a stolen delivery truck. The driver had fled the scene, escaping down into the subway. In that moment, Matthew had been orphaned, though only just. He was seventeen. By all appearances an adult. Except not in the eyes of the law, which was why he was here in Vermont, at least until he turned eighteen over the summer and, a few weeks later, went off to college.

Gil and Molly and their girls had flown to New York for the joint funeral and to make the arrangements for Matthew to come under their care. They’d stayed at Sharon’s apartment on the Upper East Side—­December in New York, a huge Christmas tree in the apartment’s living room, decorated in a way that seemed clearly done by some professional, silver snowflakes and delicate glass balls, white lights—­but to their surprise Matthew hadn’t been there, not when they’d arrived or at any point after. The family lawyer explained that Matthew would be staying with friends, as that was most comfortable for him in this difficult time. This same lawyer had called after Sharon’s accident to inform them that, per the will, they were now Matthew’s guardians. Before Gil and Molly had had kids, back when they’d lived in Brooklyn, Sharon had asked if they’d be the boy’s godparents. They’d attended the baptism at the Trinity Church near Wall Street, had held the squalling baby, but after the near-­total break between the families, Gil had assumed his sister would appoint someone else, a friend from her world, or maybe Niles’s parents, who’d retired to Edinburgh, Scotland. Apparently not. Whether this was an oversight, something his sister had stopped thinking about once Matthew was no longer little, or a gesture of familial connection, Gil had no idea. Molly was sure the latter was more likely. People like Niles and Sharon, with real money and assets, didn’t pop off a will and leave it untended. If she was right—­and of course she was—­even after all the acrimony and bitterness of the past six years, Sharon had entrusted them with her only child.

They’d assumed Matthew would attend the funeral, which had been crowded with people from the boy’s private school and Niles’s investment bank. The men—­tall with carefully short hair to obscure their balding, or with expensively maintained styles that looked improbable at their age—­shook hands stiffly, heads drawn back, as if remembering an untoward detail Niles had told them about his brother-­in-­law. A writer, wasn’t he? A professor? Didn’t they live out in the woods? Maine?

Vermont, he’d corrected, and they nodded to indicate there was no difference. Not New York. Not business. So, not real. Their wives were sculpted and frighteningly thin, with faces that had been tightened and injected so many times they would never again truly smile.

Gil had long scorned his sister’s world, but he knew this was partly jealousy. Sure, they were soulless devils, but they had millions of dollars, massive uptown apartments, and lavish vacation homes. The men were math wizards who’d turned to currency trading and market manipulations instead of, say, astronomy or medicine. The women held MBAs, JDs, MDs, and PhDs, but few of them worked. They’d given up their careers for the luxury more easily accessed through a powerful husband. Gil told himself he didn’t want any of that. This had, of course, not been on offer: High finance didn’t seek out mathematically illiterate fiction writers. So he was safe.

With the service about to start he’d asked a woman whose son was in Matthew’s class if she knew where he was.

“Oh, I don’t think Matthew’s going to make it today,” the woman with knife blade cheekbones said. Today. As if this was another bit of the routine, soccer practice, or the school play.

“We haven’t seen him yet. Is he doing okay? I thought he’d come,” Gil said, knowing he sounded pathetic.

“Don’t you have his number?” the woman asked, incredulous, apparently not having realized how low on the evolutionary ladder this “person” actually was.

About the Author

Nathan Oates
Nathan Oates’s debut collection of short stories, The Empty House, won the Spokane Prize. His stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Copper Nickel, West Branch, The Best American Mystery Stories, and elsewhere. He has been awarded fellowships from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Missouri, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is an associate professor at Seton Hall University, where he teaches creative writing. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his family. More by Nathan Oates
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