Saturday, July 1, 2017

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Is Dustin Tillman the unluckiest man in the world?  One might think so.  He comes from a horrific childhood.  One morning he and his cousins woke up in their backyard from a camping night and went inside only to find both his and their parents brutally slaughtered.  Dustin's adopted brother, Rusty, who is into Goth and dealing drugs, is the police's first suspect.  When Dustin tells the things Rusty has done to him, Rusty is arrested and sent for trial.  Dustin and his cousin are the main witnesses against him and Rusty is sent to prison for life.

Fast forward to adulthood.  Dustin has reinvented himself and is now a psychologist living a normal family life in the suburbs.  His wife is a lawyer and his two sons are healthy and happy.  Then tragedy strikes again.  His wife gets ill and passes away.  The family can't move beyond their grief and fall apart.  The older son goes off to college and Dustin and his younger son rattle around their house, rarely speaking and never communicating when they do.

Then Dustin hears the news.  Rusty is being released after an Innocence Project has taken his case.  It turns out that there was never any forensic evidence.  Rusty was convicted in an atmosphere of societal worry about teenage kids and satanic cults, like the Memphis Three.  Now thirty years later, he is coming out of prison and its unsure what he plans to do next.

In Dustin's own city, there is another troubling issue.  One of his patients is a former policeman who has been sent for psychological help.  Yet he is less interested in his own problems than in a case he believes he has found.  Teenage college boys are being found in bodies of water.  The cases seem similar; they go out drinking with their friends, disappear and are found drowned later.  Most of the cases are classified as accidents or suicides.  Yet the patient believes there is a serial killer out there and draws Dustin into his belief system.  Soon Dustin is helping in the 'investigation' and neglecting everything else.

This is a haunting book.  It starts slowly, portraying a normal family.  Tendrils of menace float up occasionally, leaving the reader uneasy.  Then the hits start to come faster and faster as one is drawn into the realization that Dustin has been removed from reality his entire life and that he is the ultimate unreliable narrator.  The book is like a ride down a snowy hill on a sled.  At first nothing much happens and then the reader is riding pell-mell to an inevitable end.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

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