"A Dark and Secret Place" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Crooked Lane Books
Written by Jen Williams
2021, 304 pages, Fiction
Released on 8 June 2021
Fans of twisty dark thrillers should take a closer look at A Dark and Secret Place, the latest novel by an author predominately known for fantasy fiction. This is a clever change of direction for Jen Williams, who has three very well received trilogies, of which The Ninth Rain (2018) won the prestigious British Fantasy Society Award for best novel. Occasionally authors do make very successful genre jumps, a notable recent example being Sarah Pinborough, who spent years writing horror and fantasy before hitting the big time with her thriller Behind Her Eyes (2017), which recently debuted on Netflix. Has Williams got the literary thrills to be the next big thing? Quite possibly and this story has definite television potential.
Like all very good thrillers, A Dark and Secret Place has a convincing hook which will have fans of page-turners purring with delight, posing the million dollar question; how well do we know our nearest and dearest? Everybody has secrets, even our parents, but given the opportunity, would you really want to know what type of skeleton lurks in a family closet, or is this a stone best left unturned? This novel runs with this idea and gives the skeleton a jolly good rattle.
This type of predicament faces Heather Mills after she returns to the family home following her mother’s suicide. The pair were estranged and had barely spoken for twenty years since the death of her father and whilst going through her mother’s belongings, uncovers a significant stack of carefully preserved letters. Heather soon realises that her mother was in correspondence with a notorious serial killer, Michael Reave, also known as the ‘Red Wolf’, for the brutal manner in which he killed young women. Before long other murders begin, which are uncannily similar to those of the Red Wolf years earlier and the police, who are struggling for clues, allow Heather to talk to Reave, who has never previously spoken about his crimes, or admitted his guilt.
How you rate A Dark and Secret Place may well depend on how you take to Heather; she sometimes comes across as rather pushy, abrasive and unlikable. However, much of her frazzled state can be attributed to the fact that she feels guilt towards her mother and whether their estrangement had anything to do with her suicide. She is dealing with serious personal issues and although she repeatedly ignores really weird and obvious signs that strange things are afoot, I found her to be believable and sufficiently complex to lead the novel. However, she is no Clarice Starling and readers are bound to make unfavourable comparisons to Silence of the Lambs, both book and film, because of the conversations with the caged killer.
Although there is a slight sag in the middle, the fact that Heather is an ex-journalist keeps the plot jogging along as she puts her skill-set to good use investigating her mother’s murky past. Strangely, on a couple of occasions there is the suggestion that she is an unreliable narrator, and this muddles things slightly, implying that there is something dodgy in her no longer working for a newspaper. Also, for a former journalist, on a few occasions, she is incredibly naïve, as there is a character who pops up a few times and it is so obvious she is dodgy!
A second major plot takes the reader back to the late sixties and early seventies where an abused boy is taken in by a local farmer who discovers him after a distressing family incident. Where this particular thread heads is relatively straight forward, but it is very interesting to see how it connects to Heather’s mother and it includes a couple of twists I did not see coming. This led to some page time being devoted to a hippy commune and although the word cult is never used, it is implied by some of the unsavoury stuff that went on. I enjoyed these glimpses of the commune and potentially more could have been made of this sequence.
Overall, A Dark and Secret Place is a convincing thriller which works successfully both as combination of police procedural with elements of a Gothic fairy tale blended in, which implies the legacy and cycle of childhood violence is very difficult to break or consign to the past. Also, if you dig too deep, then perhaps you may well uncover harrowing truths which you really will not like. Heather Mills is far from perfect and she is certainly no heroine, however, most readers will certainly be rooting for her as she un-pieces a puzzle, and a voyage of personal discovery, which leads to an explosive conclusion. In the UK, this novel will be released around the same time, but is renamed Dog Rose Dirt.
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