Thursday Thriller: A Dark and Secret Place by Jen Williams
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books (June 8, 2021)
Length: 304 pages
I always love it whenever authors I’ve enjoyed jump genres, and Jen Williams has proven she can navigate the stormy waters of mystery and thriller just as effectively as she does fantasy.
A Dark and Secret Place follows Heather Evans, who returns to her hometown after getting the distressing news that her estranged mother had committed suicide. It was unexpected, and even more puzzling in light of the note she left behind. Still, the most shocking moment comes as Heather, when going through her mother’s belongings, comes across a stack of old letters from Michael Reave, also known as the “Red Wolf”, a notorious serial killer who is currently serving a life sentence. As Reave as has been in prison for over twenty years, their correspondence goes back a long way, but the contents of the letters also seem to hint at a relationship that goes back even further than that.
Then, a body of a young woman is found, dismembered and posed inside the trunk of a tree, with flowers meticulously planted and placed around her corpse—the same thing the Red Wolf used to do. But with Reave in prison, who is committing these murders now? Of course, Reave has always insisted on his innocence, despite all the damning evidence against him. It’s possible they may be dealing with a copycat, or someone with intimate knowledge of the Red Wolf’s murders. Then there’s the third option, that’s too disturbing to contemplate. Shaken by the discovery of the letters, Heather decides to take them to the police to see if they can provide any insight into the case. Seeing a possible lead, the detectives arrange for her to speak with Michael Reave to see if she can use his relationship with her mother as a way to extract information about his past. Heather agrees, but secretly, she has her own personal agenda. Coming back home has made her realize how little she knew her mother, and it is her hope that an interview with the Red Wolf will reveal some answers into why she might have killed herself.
Does Williams bring anything all that new to the genre? Maybe not, but A Dark and Secret Place is nonetheless a perfectly serviceable thriller, and I loved that there was also a hint or horror and an element involving dark folklore and fairy tales. The main premise is intriguing, and the details behind the Red Wolf murders are disturbing and chilling. Right away, the author establishes a hook and a reason for readers to want to keep reading and find out what happens next. While it’s true that some of the more usual tropes were being employed, they were dependable and effective. The first half of this book had me completely riveted.
That said, it’s hard to say how long this momentum lasted. I think part of the reason for this slight drag is the split in attention, with one thread focusing on Heather’s own investigation into her mother’s past, while the other (in my opinion, the more neglected) thread focused on solving the resumed murders. The hunt for the new killer struck me as lackadaisical and hardly urgent, as Heather returns to the prison to speak with Michael Reave again and again without making much headway, and bizarrely the detectives on the case seemed just perfectly fine with this questionable use of time and resources. To be fair though, this mystery is probably just as much about Heather’s mother as it is about the Red Wolf killings, and ultimately these two plotlines do converge. Still, with so much going on, I just wish everything had been better balanced.
Nothing confirmed this more for me more than the ending, which was, in a word, overwhelming. In most thrillers this is usually the point where everything starts coming together, but in this case, Williams introduces even more details and clues. Like a burst dam, all the information held back suddenly came in a flood, and while it wasn’t a dealbreaker by any means, the overload still felt jarring. However, I did enjoy the late addition of Heather’s good friend Nicki as her sleuthing partner towards the end, so there were some positives and high points. I just wish the two women had teamed up sooner!
All told, I had a good time with A Dark and Secret Place. Balancing the different plot threads as well the overall pacing seemed to be Jen Williams’ biggest struggle. However, hould she continue to explore the mystery thriller genre, I would definitely keep reading.