Cambridge author Karen M. McManus describes “One of Us Is Lying,” her best-selling mystery novel, as “‘The Breakfast Club’ with murder.”
It’s an intriguing pitch, one that originally sold Delacorte Press, which published the book back in May 2017. It proceeded to spend more than a year on The New York Times bestseller list.
Now, McManus’s novel is shaping up to become the next “Pretty Little Liars”-size TV hit, with news that NBCUniversal is ordering a pilot episode of “One of Us Is Lying” as it weighs possible series to premiere on its upcoming streaming service (set to arrive in April).
The story centers on five students who walk into detention, only for one of them to wind up dead. The remaining students, all with something to hide, become suspects in his murder, especially once it’s learned the victim — the creator of a notorious school gossip app — had planned to distribute dirt on all four the following day.
“It’s really exciting to be taking this next step,” said McManus by phone Friday. “The tricky thing about [having a series] in development is that there are lots of things you can’t talk about. So, for readers, it can feel like nothing’s happening, even when it is.”
Once her book reached bestseller status, McManus — who’s lived in Cambridge for more than 20 years — found herself courted by multiple teams with an interest in adapting the story. She ultimately went with Universal Content Productions (UCP), in part because of its interest in working with McManus to preserve the story’s tone and heart.
“They’re really committed to a collaborative process,” she said. “Everyone involved really cares about these characters the way I do.” With what she calls “four really distinct personalities driving the plot,” that was essential.
McManus, who graduated from Northeastern University with a journalism degree, feels it’s best to ground stories, especially whodunits, in realistically drawn characters.
“I find [journalism] to be such a good background for writers,” she said. “It also teaches you to look for holes in your story, which is really important when you’re writing a mystery.”
NBCUniversal’s streaming service is entering a crowded marketplace, competing directly with Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime along with forthcoming services by Disney, Apple, and HBO. As it attempts to stand out, bingeworthy shows will be essential.
“I think it’s a really good fit [for streaming],” she said. “When I wrote the book, one of the things I tried to do at the end of every chapter was make a mini-cliffhanger that would make it hard for people to stop reading.”
Should NBCUniversal order a full season of the series, McManus expects it to air sometime next year — though she’d be surprised if its premiere coincided with the streaming service’s launch in April.
McManus has other irons in the fire, too. PictureStart — a media company started this past May by ex-Lionsgate president Erik Feig — has acquired the rights to adapt “Two Can Keep a Secret,” a standalone suspense novel she published in January.
And to ring in next year, she’ll publish a direct sequel, “One of Us Is Next,” which picks up a year after “Lying” with a new cast of characters. “It’s not necessarily a season two,” she warned. All the same, discussions are underway with UCP that could lead to it being adapted in some form.
“You look at something like [Netflix’s] “To All the Boys I Loved Before,’” said McManus. “It started as a movie, but now there will be two more [films], because people loved it. Or [Netflix’s] ‘13 Reasons Why,’ you weren’t sure there was going to be more, and it got three seasons.”
Whatever happens, McManus is content for the time being to enjoy her success as a best-selling — and now full-time — novelist. After “One of Us Is Lying” broke big, Delacorte offered her a two-book contract, and with Hollywood calling, McManus left her previous job, at Monotype in Woburn.
“There was too much work, and something had to give,” she said. “It wasn’t going to be the dream job.”