What Happened at the Lake by Phil M. Williams is remarkable first for the number of characters introduced throughout the story. Second is either the complete lack of character development (see Kate and Whitney or Ed the septic tank man) or characters that contradict themselves (Kristin for only one example). At the thirty percent mark, I still had to stop and consider how a mentioned character related to others, even those in the central “crew.” This group is a large dysfunctional family which for some reason consented to go on vacation together. We can blame Alex, not the family patriarch, for deciding to call each of the eleven family members and invite them to a rented house near a lake where, perhaps, long-standing family issues can be worked out. I was busily highlighting family names and trying to figure out family relationships and family problems when I came across this passage in chapter ten at the 17% point in the novel. Maybe Williams was taking pity on the reader and was offering a helpful summary of characters. It didn’t help.
“Nearly everyone was present for the maiden voyage. Alex and Matt loaded gear onto the pontoon boat. Emma and Rachel sat near the front, talking under their sun hats. Harvey, Cathy, and Seth sat in the rear, under the canopy. Brett and Kristin sat in the sun, talking in hushed whispers. Buster the Boston terrier trotted from person to person, wagging his tail in search of treats.” (Kindle locations 651-652)
By this point I felt comfortable with the character of Buster, the one most clearly defined. We know about Alex. He organized the outing. Emma is his wife. Matt is either Alex’s brother or stepbrother, a PTSD sufferer, and a combat veteran with a dishonorable discharge due to failure to follow orders while in combat. This brings disgrace to the entire family according to Harvey, father of Alex and the family patriarch. Harvey is a successful author of war novels although it is not clear whether he has seen combat. Rachel is Harvey’s daughter and Seth’s wife. It is clear that Harvey wants to sleep with Rachel and that Rachel is up for sleeping with anyone. Cathy is Harvey’s wife. Although she is considerably younger than Harvey and once was considered a trophy wife, she is beyond her expiration date which seems to give Harvey license to perv on Rachel. Brett is an older “bad boy” and boyfriend to the sixteen-year-old Kristen. Alex, the father of Kristen, thinks Brett sinister but invites him on the trip anyway so Kristen won’t sulk. Brett’s goal in life is to get Kristen to go “all the way” but she is a good Christian girl only good for hand jobs and describing bodily functions to one and all in the fashion of TMI. Seth is a wimp, husband to Rachel but pretty much an unneeded appendage as Rachel is doing everyone in sight.
And these are not the only the characters in the family. I lost Alex’s brother, Jeff and his wife Gwen. And only at the 20% point of the novel. We still have to deal with Kate and Whitney (above), Dorothy and George (landlords of the rental property), Ed (above), a neighboring peeping Tom, weird cops, and the evil Danny. These additions bring us to 30%. At this point, I am fascinated by the story and want to know how many more characters can possibly be added. There are 59 chapters and I am only at chapter 19. Can the characters possibly come together in a story with any semblance of a coherent tale?
And the answer is … Yes. After all the characters above plus a few more, we get down to the story. There are killings so the story turns into a murder mystery but with lots of victims. Some are not even human. Unfortunately, with this many characters, we have this many suspect. As each suspect’s possible motivation and background situation is examined, I referred frequently to my “organization of characters” chart. There is an unpredictable almost ending which is interesting. It is followed by a further ending for different characters that is syrupy sweet and cloying. I would have been happier if the additional part had been left out but it was necessary to explain yet another late-arriving character.
While there is a good story here, I could only give it three stars due to crowded pages which made me work too much. My progress through this work of fiction was as slow as with an academic text. This is not a page-turner; a reader would get lost in the weeds. The writing interested me enough to try one more of the author’s novels, Against the Grain. I read a sample and it seems there are far fewer characters.
This novel is listed on Amazon for USD 4.99. Amazon notes I purchased the novel. I would have been very disappointed had I paid this price. I would have tried to return it. I got it for USD 0.00. After completing this review, I checked my order details and also looked at other reviews. There are 112 five-star reviews. What did they read?