Title: Stillhouse Lake
Series: Stillhouse Lake #1
Author: Rachel Caine
Publish Date: July 1, 2017
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Page Count: 286 pages
Source: Own copy
Date Read: May 7-19, 2020
I read this because COYER hosts are now doing book clubs; this was the book voted to read for the mystery/suspense genre club. It was for a book club, so I kept reading even though I should have DNF after the fifth chapter. It got to the point I was rooting for the serial killer when he got the MC alone. There will be spoilers, so page break.
This is the story of Gwen Proctor, formerly Gina Royal. In the prologue you meet Gina, who lives the perfect middle class life in Wichita, Kansas with her perfect kids (a girl and a boy, of course) and her perfect marriage. In that Lifetime Original Movie way, that perfect life is shattered when a drunk driver jumps the curb on her street and drives straight through her garage. That is where the cops find the body of a skinned young woman hanging by a noose. Turns out the garage, a place that Gina's husband said was his "woodworking workspace" and that she and the kids were forbidden to ever go in, was really his place to rape, murder, and skin women. Yep, Melvin Royal, a quiet accountant and wonderful husband and father, was actually a cold blooded serial killer who would dump the dead bodies in a lake away from Wichita.
Lots of description that makes the prologue REALLY LONG and really gross Tragedy Porn Bingo. The prologue is 41 pages in a book that was only 275 pages of reading material.
Gina is suspected as being "Mel's Little Helper" by the police and spends a year in jail and in trial. She is acquitted because she hired great lawyers and the prosecution didn't have a case against her and everyone knew it. Yet nobody, including this reader, really believed that Gina could be THAT NAIVE, THAT OBEDIENT, THAT BLINDED to the monster her husband was.
In chapter one, Gina is now Gwen Proctor, living with her kids in a new home in Stillhouse Lake, Tenn. This is after a year, maybe longer, of using other fake identities and running around the country trying to break any connection between the old Gina and new Gwen....although how she thought she managed to pull that off, is one of a number of plot holes in this book. Gina's and Mel's separate trials were national news; her face was in the newspaper, blogs, tv, everywhere. Does Gwen change her looks - no. She does worry about her hair color needing a touch up because she can see more gray hairs. Her kids are a mess, emotionally and mentally, but they are smarter and stronger than mom, who has developed a SEVERE paranoia and fascination with the "Sicko Patrol" - a group of online forum where users Photoshop the heads of Gwen and her kids on porn pictorials and claim that when the find "Mel's Little Helper" they will do what Mel did to his victims - she visits these sites daily and has printed reports/evidence "in case anything happens." One of these trolls decided about eight months ago that the other online trolls were too far gone and had helped her find the new house and new identities. They keep in regular contact. Her paranoia doesn't seem to kick in at the right times, a pattern that is pretty much makes up Gwen's personality. By the way, at no time whatsoever does Gwen take these threats to the police or FBI. Because she doesn't trust cops.
Finally, there is a new dead body found in the lake - it only took a few chapters and it was very much an afterthought, while Gwen's paranoia takes up most of the plot. It was a young woman without her skin. The local detectives, the very Keystone Kops of Tennessee, question her and the kids, but don't have suspicions of them yet. Gwen starts dating a local neighbor, Sam. Sam is an OEF vet who is living in Stillhouse Lake for only six months so he can finish a book. Gwen tells him about her life as Gina, and they are somewhat friends with benefits.
After a lot of bland, pointless daily life goings on, there is another dead body, same MO as the first and the same as her ex-husband's. By now, Detective Prester is having a hard on to pin this all on Gina/Gwen, but he doesn't have proof; yet he also doesn't have the energy or will to investigate the murders too deeply. He's a lazy ass, but there is no details about how the investigation is going. There is just dead bodies, questioning Gwen about the murders, and then Gwen goes back to being paranoid about her life.
And how can Gwen afford this paranoid lifestyle? She found Mel's storage unit, where he kept his victims' clothes and other personal belongings. He also had a duffle bag filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars from a previously unrelated inheritance. That was his get-a-away money. Gwen took the duffle bag, put it in the trunk of her car, then called the cops regarding the unit. Gwen also works as a web designer/web site maintainer, even though she doesn't have any degree or studied at all. She was a naïve, virgin 19 year old when she met Melvin and never had to work outside the home. Yet she is awesome with computers and web design. SURRRRRREEEEE.
What's Sam's backstory? The book he is writing is about his dead sister and her murder. The sister was the young woman hanging by the noose in the garage when the book started. Yep, he is the brother of Mel's last victim. Also, both brother and sister were orphaned at a young age and separated while in foster care. They lost touch for a while and were re-united by letters while he served in Afghanistan. He came home from the deployment to find his sister dead. He knew Gwen was Gina the entire time and had ideas of how to punish her for her sister's death - but when he got to know her, he KNEW she couldn't have anything to do with murder.
One more point to add to the Tragedy Porn bingo - Mel liked "breath play" during sex; this is when one partner strangles/suffocates/closes the airway of the other partner. Because Gina/Gwen was such a NAIVE VIRGIN when they married, she went along with his kink to make him happy and be an obedient wife. The one time she said no to breath play, he raped her, but she thinks of it as forceful sex that night. How does that play into the plot? It doesn't. It was one of the random tidbits found during one of Gwen's long paranoia episodes. But remember, Gina had NO IDEA that Mel would hurt other woman.
Boring things happen, then Gwen has a cop watch the house while she goes to the gun range to let off some steam since she got a phone call from Mel, who is in prison in El Dorado, Kansas. That cop, another gem in the Keystone Kops crown, leaves the kids to go to a situation where there is a cop who was shot and it was called over the radio for all hands on deck - even though the cop was off duty and had promised to stay with kids who are being targeted for violence. Yeah, the plot holes are huge in this book. Meanwhile, Gwen comes back from the range and visits Sam, and during the visit someone attempts to kill Sam through a window. Gwen notices the gun just in time and pulls Sam to safety. Sam and Gwen go to check on the kids - and SURPRISE! they are kidnapped. Because Gwen had to visit her boyfriend and the Keystone Kop had to go to the all hands call that ended up being a false alarm. Cool, cool.
Through a series of unplausible action sequences, the serial killers (it's a family hobby) are arrested, the kids are found, and the ending is a cliff-hanger, as Mel has broken out of jail and is on the run and knows where Gwen and the kids are. Sam and Gwen are now officially a thing. The serial killers are Officer Graham and his two teenage sons, folks that Gwen trusted and wanted her son to be friends with. Gwen is such a good judge of character, isn't she?
Horrible pacing, awful characters, plot holes to fly an Apache helicopter through - this book was one long slog of Tragedy Porn and I am not reading anything more in the series.