It’s been quite some time since I read the first book in this series, Stillhouse Lake, and one of the reasons I waited so long – besides the usual problems of a crowded TBR – was that my previous experience with one of Rachel Caine’s series, namely The Great Library, soured a little with the second installment and I was wary of a repeat occurrence. It turned out that my doubts were more than founded: to be completely honest, Killman Creek was not a bad read but a good portion of the freshness and inventive of its predecessor was missing in this book, which led me to think that there might be some form of… narrative pattern here. But let’s proceed with order.
The woman calling herself Gwen Proctor used to be Gina Royal, unsuspecting wife of Melvin Royal, a vicious serial killer: when a freak accident revealed the horrors hidden in Melvin’s garage, no one felt inclined to believe in Gina’s innocence, because it seemed impossible that she would not know what was going on; no one seemed to understand that a meek, subtly plagiarized wife would be unable to see behind the curtain of normalcy projected by her husband. Once the trial established her innocence, Gina had to keep on the move to save herself and her two children by the hordes of haters who hounded them, mostly thanks to the pervasiveness of the internet: changing her name and keeping on the move were the only options she had, and so Gwen Proctor was born.
In Stillhouse Lake we encountered Gwen finding a place where she wanted to stay and start to build a new life for herself and her teenage children, but Melvin’s reach and vindictiveness – enhanced by a hacker collective called Absalom – went beyond the prison’s barriers and once more shattered Gwen’s existence, culminating in Melvin’s escape from jail and a further level of threat for Gwen and her small family. Killman Creek sees Gwen choosing to go on the offensive: with the help of Sam, the brother of one of Melvin’s victims, she decides to hunt down her former husband and physically remove him from the equation once and forever. Easier said than done, though: as the only escaped inmate still at large, Melvin seems able to remain several steps ahead, enjoying the mental torture he can inflict on Gwen just as much as he enjoyed the physical violence visited on his victims, and the people from Absalom keep adding new damning material to Gwen’s profile, to the point that her innocence is dramatically contested both by her shocked children and by a still-grieving Sam, so that she finds herself even more isolated than before and chooses to play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with Melvin in the hope of forever ending her torment.
The pace in Killman Creek is indeed relentless and there seems to be no way out of the intricate network of deceit and remote control that Melvin and Absalom have created against Gwen, but in the end this complicated web turns out to be counterproductive because it requires such a high suspension of disbelief that the drama feels phony. There is far too much on the table: Absalom’s powers, Melvin’s almost psychic intuitions, a reclusive billionaire with an interest in the matter, an FBI agent ready to go rogue to help Sam, and Gwen’s younger son acting like a very naive monkey wrench in his mother’s plans.
Moreover, at some point a series of fake videos sheds a very suspicious light on Gwen’s past and creates a tragic fracture between her, the children and Sam, and that was the element that managed to shatter my “belief bubble”, because it felt so contrived and over the top and it added a further layer of drama which, at that point, seemed totally unnecessary. Since it was firmly established that Absalom could easily manipulate evidence, and it was equally established that Gina/Gwen had no part in her husband’s murderous activities, I would have expected the fake vids to create some doubts and some shock, yes, but not the violent rejection she had to endure from everyone, as if her every single action so far, her fierce protectiveness toward her kids and her willingness to sacrifice everything for them, amounted to nothing. It looks as if the author thought the mix was not complex enough, and she felt the need to add a melodramatic angle that I found both superfluous and annoying – and which apparently left no consequences, because in the end all was forgotten and forgiven as if it never happened: understandable as far as the children are concerned, far less so with Sam…
The characters, which in the previous book had been established as complex and nuanced, here lose some of that complexity and take a step back in favor of the action: nothing wrong with this, of course, but they also seem to de-evolve in comparison with their former selves. Gwen, despite the resolution to go on the offensive, looks like the proverbial headless chicken running in circles and makes a series of foolish mistakes; Sam is there only to brood and doubt; and the kids, who used to have my total understanding for being forced to grow too soon, here appear as the embodiment of the worst in YA characters, forced angst included. Even Melvin, who so far had looked like an evil manipulator gifted with a twisted intelligence, here appears like nothing more than the classic, mustache-twirling villain.
It’s a pity that such a good opportunity to keep exploring the troubles and traumas of a serial killer’s family was turned into a paint-by-the-numbers thriller that from the midpoint onwards saw me skimming more than reading: I wanted to see how the situation would be resolved, but I had lost faith in the characters’ journey. A pity indeed…