Review: A Dark and Secret Place by Jen Williams

55968581

★★★

Crooked Lane Books | 2021

Filed Under: A casserole that gets jail married to a serial killer and then does an episode of Dateline to explain why he’s actually innocent.


There are so many pieces of this novel that, individually, are dark and spooky and twisted and should have been captivating. But all those pieces put together in this way, in this particular narrative, just didn’t grab me by the literary bits like I was hoping it would.

When Heather Evans’ mother dies by suicide, she is left with a suicide note that doesn’t make much sense and a box full of letters from serial killer Michael Reeve, aka the Red Wolf.

No one ever truly knows another person because our inner lives are impossible to share. That coupled with how complicated it can be to know your parents outside of their roles as your parents, leaves Heather reeling.

Let’s be honest, if you found out your mom was besties with a serial killer who had hacked up some woman twenty years ago, you’d have a few fucking questions, too. And Heather, a journalist by trade (though currently disgraced,) has got some questions that she just can’t resist investigating. Who was her mother? Why was she so close to a serial killer? And I know Heather didn’t say it outright, but we’re all thinking it at some point – did her mother fuck a serial killer?

Reno 911 GIF by The Roku Channel

From this groundwork comes a twisted and layered mystery involving a hippie commune, a couple of serial killers, three women with Brides of Dracula vibes, a narcissistic cult leader and one too many sinister casseroles.

Heather pals around with Michael Reeve behind bars to uncover her mother’s secrets. These scenes very much have Hannibal/Clarice vibes. The comparison is just unavoidable. Especially because Reeve talks in fucking fairy tales as metaphors the whole time. For me, it read a bit contrived. I would have loved for Reeves to creep me the fuck out, but he had more than one moment where his schtick was borderline silly.

Issa Rae GIF by Insecure on HBO

The second part of the plot centres around a Red Wolf copycat killer and the detective on his murderous trail. This storyline doesn’t feature very prominently throughout the novel, just enough to make the copycat killer relevant. There are two or three chapters that introduce a victim and then kind of drop it sharply. Like you never hear about that character again, not even during the police investigation because that is not explored at all. Don’t even get me started on that! Those single chapters felt unnecessary and awkwardly random. I do wish the copycat killer had been given a bigger presence in the novel, but it was pretty back burner in comparison to the rest. Where New Red Wolf and O.G. Red Wolf converge and overlap, the storylines work well together even if they are lopsided in importance.

And this is where I would typically say I could have done without the romance subplot, but it really wasn’t terrible. It didn’t add to anything either, but I guess I’m just surprised that I didn’t mind it so I’m mentioning it. Because the author writes emotions so subtly, the romance element was airy and intertwined gracefully, rather being than being obvious like the literary version of pretending to yawn and stretch to put your arm around someone.

Kristen Wiig Flirting GIF

So, all those bits and pieces sound good, but the execution was lacking emotion and suspense. It’s just a bit of a flatline, which was blocking me from being totally invested in the characters and outcome. And with so many options for the narrative because of all the moving parts built into the plot, this was surprisingly linear for 80% of it, where solo character scenes that involve an abundance of inner monologuing reign supreme. But the characters weren’t exceptional either. I feel like if you’re going to do a slow burn mystery, the characters really need to be vibrant enough to carry subtle, still scenes that require those inner monologue moments. Otherwise…

bored kim kardashian GIF

As we get towards the end, the difference in the pacing becomes more pronounced. For me, this needed some kind of propulsive force in the background that would have made the slower moments worth reading through. There was an attempt to build suspense using ominous “scares” or warnings, but they were pretty lame, like Oh no, she brought over another casserole! Oh God, not another feather!

Things really started to pick up during the last third of the novel, turning into a story that was a bit wacky with a hint of camp, like a made-for-tv-mystery that is taking itself a little too seriously. And honestly, sometimes that’s more fun to read than a brooding, slow burner for me. If the full novel was as fucking erratic as the last 20% my rating would probably be different.

Fucking Highlights are:

Heather’s best friend, Nikki, for her concise review of Ted Bundy, “Bundy. What a cunt.”

Anne, the old hippie lady for, “Good drugs, bad people. Funny how that works.”

And Heather for losing her shit. “Oh fuck you! You’re nothing but a murderer, a desperate sad waste of space!”

I have to say, angry and swearing Heather was the best version of Heather and I wish that aspect of her personality had more of a chance to be expressed.

Overall, this is fine. The writing voice has the right balance of description and plot, and it’s definitely readable. But it fell short of what it could have been and settled somewhere in meh territory. If you love a slow burn mystery you’ll probably like this. I wasn’t totally the right audience for it. I need my serial killer thrillers to come with more thrills and less casserole.

🔪🔪🔪


When prodigal daughter Heather Evans returns to her family home after her mother’s baffling suicide, she makes an alarming discovery–stacks and stacks of carefully preserved letters from notorious serial killer Michael Reave. The “Red Wolf,” as he was dubbed by the press, has been in prison for over twenty years, serving a life sentence for the gruesome and ritualistic murders of several women across the country, although he has always protested his innocence. The police have had no reason to listen, yet Heather isn’t the only one to have cause to re-examine the murders. The body of a young woman has just been found, dismembered and placed inside a tree, the corpse planted with flowers. Just as the Red Wolf once did.

What did Heather’s mother know? Why did she kill herself? And with the monstrous Red Wolf safely locked inside a maximum security prison, who is stalking young women now? Teaming up with DI Ben Parker, Heather hopes to get some answers for herself and for the newest victims of this depraved murderer. Yet to do that, she must speak to Michael Reave herself, and expose herself to truths she may not be ready to face. Something dark is walking in the woods, and it knows her all too well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s