Fri
Jun 30 2017 3:00pm

Review: Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine

Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine is a chilling thriller about what happens to the family of a serial killer and their struggles as the rest of the world continue to judge them as responsible for the killer's atrocities (available July 1, 2017).

On one normal day, Gina Royal is just picking her kids up from school and returning home. Simple. Straightforward. Nothing special. But her street is blocked off, swarmed by police officers. Someone, probably a drunk driver, has slammed his vehicle into her husband’s garage. There’s a gaping hole where the wall used to be, allowing everyone to see clearly what is inside: the body of a dead woman hanging from the ceiling. 

Gina, as unsuspecting as the rest of the world, finds herself charged as an accessory to her husband’s crimes. She suffers through a trial of her own. (She’s acquitted.) But the world is not as “innocent until proven guilty” as she would hope, and the internet is a dangerous place. With threats of physical violence hounding herself and her children, Gina goes into hiding. 

Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine explores the consequences of the age-old question: how could she not know? Gina Royal is the wife of a serial killer. He killed women in his “workshop,” which was a refinished garage that Gina supposedly never went into. Even though she went to trial and was found not guilty, the jury of the world at large doesn’t believe her. 

Now, after years on the run, Gina—now Gwen—is tired of running. Her kids are tired of running. She hopes that this new house on the shores of Stillhouse Lake will be the perfect new forever home. And all signs point that way: there are police officers nearby, Gwen has learned how to use firearms, and there’s an alarm system and a panic room. It may just be time to settle down. 

Then, they find the woman in the lake. 

Officials are keeping silent on the cause of the woman’s death, though they have classified it as a homicide and are interviewing residents of the lakeside community—a formerly exclusive, wealthy area fallen, like most of the state, on harder times—to discover who, if anyone might have information to lead to the identity of the victim or killer. They believe that the body was placed into the water after death and say the killer attempted to weigh it down. “Pure luck it didn’t work,” said Chief Stamps. “She was roped to a concrete block, but the propeller of the boat must have cut one of the ropes when he started the engine, and up she came in the end.”

The woman has been brutally mutilated and dumped in the lake. The modus operandi is all too familiar to Gwen. Her ex-husband used to do the same thing. 

…the way the killer weighed down the body. And the age and description of the victim—it rings some kind of bell, something distant, but I can’t lay hands on a memory to go with it. 

It also sounds eerily like the young women Melvin abducted, raped, tortured, mutilated, and buried in his own watery garden. 

Tied to concrete blocks. 

I try to get control of myself, my racing mind. It’s a coincidence, obviously. Disposing of a body in water is hardly unique, and most smart killers try to weight them down to delay discovery. Concrete blocks, I remember from Melvin’s trial, aren’t unusual either. 

But that description

Gwen—who has moved from place to place, never letting her children or herself settle into any kind of steady routine—now has to make a choice: run again or stay and hold her ground. 

Caine does a very good job of making the consequences of staying visceral for the reader (and Gwen). Every day, Gwen hits the computer and checks the “sicko” boards—people who have followed her husband’s case and her own trial, people who think she is as guilty as he is, people who think she and her children should be punished. 

By the time we meet the sickos on the boards, we’ve already spent a lot of time with Gwen and the kids, Lanny and Connor. While the kids are remaining flexible, the strain of constant moves and the inability to put down any roots is showing. There’s trouble at school. There’s trouble at home. The kids are completely caught in the middle of this fiasco—the children could easily be categorized as two more victims of their cruel father. 

But the sicko boards don’t care. Knowing what we know as readers, it’s very hard to read what these strangers want to do to them.  

It’s a hobby of a particular subset of online stalkers. Some of them are very good at Photoshop. They take gruesome crimes scene photos and graft our faces onto victims. They alter images on child pornography so I see my daughter and son brutalized in unimaginable ways. 

The one that haunts me, and I know will always haunt me, is the image of a young boy Connor’s age mutilated and left lying in a tangle of blood-soaked sheets in his own bed. That one popped up recently with a caption: God’s justice for murderers.

Despite all its darkness (or perhaps because of it?) Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake is a great summer read. The central topic is fascinating—haven’t we all wondered about serial killers who were married? Haven’t we all wondered about the spouse, what they knew, and whether they should be considered an additional victim? There’s a hint of romance, of all things. There are definitely scary, tense moments. Caine delves into all this and keeps the pace driving forward, perfect for the beach … maybe a little harrowing for the lake.

 

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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 MagazineShimmerSkive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.

Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.

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