On June 14, Suzanne Hodgkinson’s husband, James, wounded Congressman Steve Scalise and four others when he opened fire at a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, where Republican lawmakers were practicing for an upcoming game. James was shot and killed by police. Shortly after, Suzanne went on television to condemn her husband’s actions. In an interview with the New York Times she wondered if there was something more she could have done to stop him. Neighbors, afraid Suzanne would become a target, told her to keep a low profile and not even go outside to mow her lawn. But while she was in a grocery store, someone she didn’t know walked up to her and slapped her across the face.
Being related to someone who commits a heinous act, whether a shooting or serial killings, often results in guilt by association. How could those living so close to a killer not know? Sue Klebold tried to answer critics in her book, A Mother’s Reckoning – Living in the Aftermath of a Tragedy, after her son, Dylan, and his friend, Eric Harris, killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 24 others in the massacre at Columbine High School. No matter that those around the killer are innocent. They may spend the rest of their lives suffering for crimes they didn’t commit.
In Rachel Caine’s thriller, Stillhouse Lake, Gina Royal had no idea her husband, Mel, was a serial killer. While Gina kept house and cared for her daughter and son, Mel spent time in his garage workshop where he tortured and butchered young women. Gina never went in Mel’s private space, believing that he was working and just needed time alone to unwind. But when a drunk driver crashes into the garage, Mel’s handiwork is on display for all the world to see.
Mel, a narcissistic psychopath, tells police that his wife helped him to kill. That accusation is backed up by a vindictive neighbor who tells police she once saw Gina and Mel carrying what looked like a body out of the garage. Gina is eventually acquitted, but will never be free. She and her children are targeted by relatives of the victims as well as by online trolls who repeatedly track her down despite her efforts to change identities for herself and her children. They become virtual nomads, moving from place to place, dumping cellphones and personal items.
Housed on death row, Mel still finds ways to write to Gina and threaten her and the children. Just when Gina, now Gwen, believes she might be able to put down roots and settle in one school her daughter, now named Atlanta (Lanny for short), and her son, Connor, a young woman’s body is discovered in Stillhouse Lake, the killing bearing a close resemblance to Mel’s handiwork. The local authorities uncover Gwen’s true identity and her link to Mel. Someone close to her, someone she now trusts, is a copycat killer, probably in contact with Mel. Not knowing whom to trust, Gwen focuses on protecting her children, even if she must do so on her own.
Caine knows how to ratchet up the tension. The dark side of the internet is on full display, the ability of cyberbullies to reach out and touch anyone without leaving a trace. She’s also expert at creating multi-dimensional characters, never allowing us to truly believe in anyone’s innocence or guilt, including Gina/Gwen.
Top: Rachel Caine, photo by Robert A. Hart