Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine has provided me with the densest, fast-paced, complex reading experience in the past several months. I tend to read and comment on a novel or short story every day. This was a breath of fresh air in superior writing. It could have gone wrong if the author had treated character backstories differently, but Rachel Caine deftly hinted at just parts of backstories as she teased the reader to continue the path in search of a motive for some horrible acts.
A seemingly harmless and innocuous Melvin Royal had pursued his hobby as a serial killer and eviscerated many of his victims in his home workshop while wife Gina Royal, daughter Lily, and son Brady were on the other side of the wall, perhaps in the kitchen or in the family room watching TV. Melvin may never have been caught had it not been for a drunk driver who crashed into the workshop one mid-day to reveal his latest hanging victim. Mel quickly was judged and went to jail for one murder but then Gina found a storage site which provided evidence of many of Mel’s murders, Mel was awarded an extended stay in prison and felt that Gina should pay for her disloyalty. Still, since he was in prison, he should not have been much of a threat. Enter Internet Trolls and the phenomenon of cult followers who love social misfits.
A large group of people felt that Gina could not have been ignorant of Mel’s hobby, that she was an enabler and possibly Mel’s accomplice. Even though Gina had spent a year in pre-trial confinement and was acquitted, fans of true crime felt that Gina should be punished, killed, tortured, and maimed in creative ways. Brady and Lily, who had lived with Grandma during Mom’s jail time, were similarly threatened with torture and maiming although Gina tried to conceal threats from them. Finally, Gina was fed up with the publicity and physical vandalism of their property. She researched ways to establish alternate identities; she established her own witness protection program.
Gina was a novice at this and couldn’t get it right the first time, or the second, or the third. The result was a very unhappy couple of kids, one teenage daughter and a younger son, who were fed up with getting up in the middle of the night, packing everything into a few boxes, and moving to a new town. At least the kids got to pick their own names. After a few times, this could lead to an identity crisis. They had to find new friends, avoid having their pictures taken, and were forbidden to create social media accounts due to the possibility of discovery. There were layered or nuanced levels of security systems at their home. They had to remember a security code for the house, another code for the safe room, and telephone numbers of “burner” phones that could change at the whim of mom. The family tension was high. All of this was to avoid cyberbullies carrying out threats in a real-time environment. And then there was Mel. If he could ever get out of prison, what would he do to Gina? Through contacts with the criminal underground while still in prison, what could Mel do to Gina now?
Audible.com sent an email promoting this book. I looked at the blurb, found it interesting and noted that it was only USD 1.99 if I purchased the Kindle edition. At the Kindle website, I found I could get the book as part of my KU subscription (free) and I would also be able to listen to the audiobook for free. I could not pass this deal up and I am very happy with the result.
I began the day with listening to the first four chapters while I sat in my office doing drone work. I have never been a big fan of audiobooks but this one was superb due to the narration by Emily Sutton-Smith. In the first chapter when Gina had to respond to a bad behavior complaint at daughter Lily’s school, the narration and intonation of Emily Sutton-Smith allowed me to picture vividly the face of the high school principal and the smell of the reception office prior to Gina meeting the principal. These are descriptive segments I may have glossed over as I read this fast-paced novel.
Beginning with chapter five, I switched to reading the book on my laptop. By this point, additional killings were taking place, Mel was still in jail, Gina (now Gwen) had an identity that was unraveling, and the story was rushing ahead like a runaway train. I usually highlight characters, places, and phrases that catch my eye so I can include them in a review. This novel was so fast paced that I made no highlights from chapter five to the end of the novel. I was surprised to note this when I went to my highlights to write these comments. No highlights. But the story is one I won’t forget for a while so notes were unnecessary.
Many types of readers will like this story. If there is a reference work in your library with a title like “How to be Anonymous,” you will like this. Computer nerds will like this for the same reason. Readers who like psychological novels (mind of a serial killer, control freaks) will like this. Fans of mysteries will like this. Who will not like this?
Fans looking for weird sex stuff will not like it. As strange as it may seem, there is very little sex in this novel. Characters are too busy maiming each other. Also, forget romance. I won’t print a spoiler for an incipient romance between Gina/Gwen and Sam Cade but I will mention it is boring. How can romance be boring? Read this. But that doesn’t matter because this novel is fantastic without romance, sex, and (hard to believe) unnecessary graphic violence. I gave this five Amazon stars because of the way it held my interest.
This is the most interesting read I have ever gotten for “free.” OK, it is Kindle Unlimited (KU) but you get the idea.