What You Don't Know by JoAnn Chaney is a gripping, terrifying debut novel that follows those most affected by an infamous serial killer.
“He doesn't deny anything.” Coming from Paul Hoskins, the gumshoe detective who has just identified a man responsible for deadly attacks across Denver, this admission might set you feeling that his case is done and dusted. But no, it’s just the beginning.
From that start of JoAnn Chaney's staccato tale of a string of connected killings, the certainty of one man's original guilt doesn't stop a lifetime—and several shortened lifetimes—of connected secrets, many guiltily held.
While Hoskins’s suspect, Jacky Seever, is pulled off the streets in 2008, the book shifts forward in time to 2015. His acts might remind you of Illinois killer John Wayne Gacy, but we’re in firmly fictional territory, shifting between perspectives of detectives, reporters, victims, and loyal family living under the long shadow of Seever’s crimes. From that climactic beginning, we see how the bystanders’ ambitions to understand the case shape their lives.
For such a long arc, the book unfolds without foresight. As in recent thrillers, such as Pleasantville by Attica Locke, the story here is told in present tense, lighting up each moment. But that tone deliberately won’t shed light much further ahead: each character staggers through the years, withholding revelations and angles and making choices that might feel short-sighted until the next reveal.
Those multi-voice points of view are drawn out in the audiobook, read with unsentimental savvy by Christina DeLaine. Chapter by short chapter, we jump in and out of the heads of each conflicted character.
Take Hoskins, whose original pursuit of Seever had dragged him through a waterlogged crawl-space and, later, into a deep mental trench of obsession years long. Despite getting side-eye from his police colleagues, he becomes involved with a newspaper writer, sharing knowledge of the case in return for unemotional trysts that start to mean inconveniently more.
That’s with Sammie Peterson, the wily reporter who follows Hoskins under police tape in search of stories for the Denver Post. “Everyone thinks the pretty girl is a moron,” she reckons, and despite proving that wrong, making trades at every turn for information, she watches her career coast downhill after the crimes are solved. Laid off and working retail for years, she decides to reboot her writing career when a new pattern of murders revives public panic. She’s gripped by a fervent (and believable) possessiveness over the past crimes that inadvertently made her name—and her preoccupation with that glory contrasts with her day-to-day banality working at a counter selling make-up:
She’d visited the families, looked at the photographs of the dead, inhaled the dirt that’d covered their bodies down in that crawl space. Those experiences were like thread, and she’d taken them, braided those threads together and pulled them tight, laid one perfectly against the next, and that weave became her stories.
“I’ve had a terrible morning,” a woman says. She has hard eyes, a mean mouth. “I don’t want anyone to know there’s anything wrong. I want you to make me look good.”
This is nothing, Sammie thinks. These women and their petty problems, their flaws they want covered, their little insecurities. They don’t know what real suffering is. They’ve forgotten their coupons or they don’t know what to make for dinner or they don’t like how their hair looks. They tell her all these things because they want someone to care, but she doesn’t, not after what she’s seen.
It’s Sammie, rather than Hoskins, who emerges as the harder of the protagonists. She’s more sideways and untrustworthy than characters like Tess Monaghan, Laura Lippman’s reporter-turned-PI who remains loyal as well as tough. And in Chaney’s portrait of reporters burrowing into Denver’s sprawl, What You Don’t Know draws a likeness to the Mile-High City setting of Michael Connelly’s The Poet.
Other voices chime in. There’s Carrie Simms, a victim who survived capture by Seever and later believes the shocking experience saved her from a drug spiral. And Chris Weber—the Post’s current crime reporter and editor’s pet with some unchecked privilege—who is furious when Sammie starts to freelance back on his beat.
And then there’s Gloria, whose loyalty to her husband, the convicted torturer-murderer, means weekly visits. In their conversation through bulletproof glass, as Gloria nudges Jacky to pursue painting—with an eye to selling the canvases on his notoriety—Chaney again matches the terrifying with the banal, this time in a portrait of marital boredom:
She decides to ignore the question this time, acts like she hadn’t heard it at all.
“Are they clean inside? Have the menus been changed?”
“Have you been painting?” she asks. Jacky blinks. He was always the talkative one in their relationship, the one who’d lead the conversation. Years before, they’d be out for dinner and they’d meet another couple, or some acquaintance, and Jacky would introduce his wife, and then Gloria would fade quietly into the background. But things have changed, and she’s the one steering the ship, jumping from one subject to another, asking questions, pushing Jacky to talk. He’s severely depressed, the prison doctor says. He has heart problems, weight problems. He’s on a cocktail of medications, they keep changing it up, and he’s sometimes blurry, faded. Confused. She has to take control during most visits, or he’d sit there like a lump, or end up repeating the same story. “Do they have a package for me at the front?”
“Yeah,” he says.
“How many did you do this week?”
“Four, I think.” Jacky pauses. “I need paint.”
With the couple’s power dynamic upended in that correctional setting, Chaney succeeds at defanging Seever, the old monster of the headlines. He’s sidelined, even as the new copycat killer tries to recapture his audience. As a boon for the audio version, that scene marks the first time we hear Seever’s aged voice—lugubrious and slow. While those in his orbit go on, investigating the new killer and chasing their obsessions into risky territory, Seever sits captured, tired, and explained. The story moves on past him. If you’ve ever thought about the long-reaching impacts of crime, you’ll want to spend time with a tale this clever and chilling.
Read an excerpt here, or listen to an excerpt below!
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Juliet Fletcher is a writer and essayist living in Brooklyn. For the Mystery Writers of America New York chapter, she organizes monthly write-ins for emerging and established authors—and yes, you should stop by, you’re welcome! Come say hi on Twitter at @JulietFletcher