Ill Will has an amazing dust jacket and a great blurb and premise. Dustin’s adopted brother, who was found guilty as a teenager of murdering their parents and aunt and uncle, is released from prison. Dustin, who gave damning testimony in the trial, has become a psychologist, has recently lost his wife to cancer, and is struggling to parent his two late-teenage sons, one in college and the other about to graduate high school. One of Dustin’s patients, a cop removed from service, brings Dustin into a conspiracy theory about the disappearance of young men across the Midwest whose bodies then show up in rivers or other bodies of water. So begins Dustin’s journey from the mainstream.
Chaon creates a fascinating journey into the guilty grief-stricken mind of his narrator and gives us a perfect example of a narrator we think we can trust (after all, he’s an established psychologist), but whom we slowly begin to doubt and then to fear.
The problem with such a dramatically crafted narrative is that the conclusion is almost destined to disappoint. I finished Ill Will in the middle of the night because I could not stop reading until I knew whether or not I was right to doubt Dustin. I had gone to bed several nights before then terrified of the nightmares I knew were going to visit me thanks to Chaon’s mastery of psychological suspense. On that last night, I stayed awake trying to decide how Chaon could have ended the novel without disappointing me and thinking that I forgave him the disappointment because the journey was so delicious.
This is a perfect summer read. Or a winter storm by the fireplace read. Or a snappy fall afternoon read. This is a great read from page one to the end. Eskens layers a murder mystery, Vietnam, family drama, autism, guilt, romance, date rape, and cancer around a highly intriguing central character, Joe Talbert.
Joe is a college student who’s transferred from the local community college and works as a bouncer at night to pay the bills. His mother is a bipolar alcoholic who lives less than an hour away with his autistic younger brother. He’s never met his father. When his professor assigns a biography assignment, Joe seeks a subject at the local nursing home. When the director suggests Carl, a terminal cancer patient who’s been paroled from prison to die, Joe is intrigued and even more so when he learns Carl’s crime–the rape, murder, and attempted burning of his teenage neighbor.
As he works through Carl’s story, and the trial records that compose his supporting documents, his original conceptions about Carl, his cute neighbor, his brother, and the direction of his life are turned upside down. Nothing is what it seems and what everyone else can see he turns away from.
The bubble on the cover says “compulsively suspenseful.” Rarely do those blurbs accurately describe the book, but this one does. Often, thrillers trade suspense for character development–plot over character. Joe Talbert, however, is a memorable character who can push drunk guys out of a bar and cry at a production of The Glass Menagerie.
There’s an adorable note to the reader at the end that asks for reviews or to share with others if you’ve enjoyed the book–support for a debut author. I look forward to reading his subsequent work.
I love procedural crime novels for their predictability, but once in awhile it is thrilling to find an author who can design a murder mystery that is truly suspenseful from page one to the end. Paula Hawkins begins her novel mysteriously. A woman is riding on a train. We are not sure from where to where or why, but Hawkins shows us immediately into her heart. She is an outsider who watches people from the train. Hawkins slowly reveals bits and pieces of Rachel’s story and then expands the lens to her ex-husband and his new family, their neighbors, and her roommate. Even when the lens is expanded Hawkins slowly changes our view of Rachel. Eventually the narration rotates between Rachel, Anna (the second wife of Rachel’s ex), and Megan (Anna’s neighbor who had disappeared) and Hawkins destabilizes our trust in the narrative. Who sees things closest to how they really are? What are the women not telling us? How can we triangulate their stories and reveal more than they intended? Even Rachel does not trust her own narration as she struggles to regain a memory from a black out that niggles at the corners of her mind.
Hawkins populates her novel with red herrings and potential culprits. At one point I suspected everyone except the lead detective investigating Megan’s disappearance. Her cast of characters are complex. Only Detective Riley seems drawn from the stock characters of the mystery genre. These complex characters and the small twists in their stories are what contribute to Hawkins’ sustaining the thrill. She takes us into the neuroses of the narrators and makes us feel strongly about them. I cheered for Rachel even while suspecting her of murder. Hawkins leads us to empathize with Anna, who is stalked by her husband’s ex-wife, and then to despise her as a judgmental hypocritical homewrecker. She plays with our emotions so that we are not sure we can trust ourselves as readers. Even after Hawkins reveals the guilty party, she continues to hold us in suspense until the bitter end. I could not stop listening.
The Girl on the Train is reminiscent of Gone Girl and, although I love Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl cannot compare to the suspense of The Girl on the Train. I eagerly await Paula Hawkins’ follow up novel.