On a sunny eve, somewhere in the suburbs of Wichita, Gina Royal comes home with her two young children to find a car embedded into her house. But that’s not the biggest problem. The real problem is that the car has destroyed the garage wall, and when the cops take Gina into the garage – her husband’s hobby domain – she finds a dead woman suspended from the roof of the garage. The woman has been tortured to death. The culprit? Gina’s loving husband Melvin, who turns out to be a prolific serial killer.
Years later, Gina’s changed her name to Gwen Procter and lives on the banks of Stillhouse lake, a remote community in the American heartland. Her daughter is rebellious, her son withdrawn and friendless. Nevertheless, they try to make the best of it. Gwen works, keeps track of the online troll army who refuse to believe she had nothing to do with her (now ex) husband’s hobby, makes pancakes for her children and tries to get them to talk to her, but their life is guarded and careful. Gwen has drilled her children to always lock the door and activate the alarm. She exchanges her jeep for a minivan so she’ll be able to flee at the drop of a hat. The children understand, but are reluctant to abandon the fragile stability. And then, of course, dead bodies show up.
The plot of Stillhouse Lake in and of itself isn’t bad. It’s not very predictable, and Caine manages to put me on the wrong foot a few times. It’s often over the top, but that’s kind of inherent to the genre. The writing itself is no-frills and I found myself wishing it had been fleshed out a little bit more (it’s also written in first person present tense, which I hate). Barebones writing can be a blessing and little things are more annoying than having to struggle through the wafflings of writers overestimating their own ability, and at least Caine doesn’t fall into that trap, but I wish she’d give it a bit more because what IS there is not bad, but after the entire 600+ page book I still had no idea what the main character looked like, for example. There’s also the conclusion, which reads like her editor sent it back to her with a note saying ‘if you just change the last page we’ll be able to get a series out of this’ but Caine couldn’t be arsed to do it properly so she just kind of tacked it on. I don’t blame her for that, but the execution could have been better.
Which brings me to the second point: the characters in this book are tremendously underdeveloped. Both children are of the Angsty Teen Archetype (one Goth, one Emo) and they’re little more than MacGuffins, always saying and doing whatever is more convenient to the plot. They’re empty vessels that carry the story instead of lifelike, compelling characters with personalities. Most likely they’ve inherited this from their mother, who reads like Steven Seagal was forced to attend an anti sexual harassment seminar and then asked to come up with a strong female character. Gwen is empty, driven by nothing but anger and suspicion on the one hand and the desire to protect her children at all cost. I love strong female characters, but Gwen isn’t a strong character in the way Caine probably thinks she is. She never fails, never panics, always knows what to do, never freezes, never says stupid stuff. It’s not realistic. People don’t work like that, not even the ones who have gone through great trauma. Great characters are relatable because they’re fallible. Gwen isn’t relatable. She’s the main character in a Steven Seagal movie without the sexism.
Nevertheless it’s a thrilling read. I raced through the second part of the book. I can’t guarantee I won’t read the next ones either. But unless there’s more character development in the next installments, I don’t think they’ll stay with me for very long.