Bitter Falls (Stillhouse Lake)
Thomas & Mercer
Paperback (also available as an e-book, an audiobook, and on Audible), 978-1-5420-4233-8, 335 pgs., $15.95
January 21, 2020
Life is complicated when your ex-husband was a serial killer. Gwen Proctor, her daughter, Lanny, son, Connor, and partner, Sam Cade, are trying to establish safety and normalcy, but their neighbors in the small community of Stillhouse Lake harbor suspicions. Worse, the Belldene clan, who “treat feuds like sporting events,” prefer them gone, as Gwen’s controversial presence and her “need for control, for defiance” attracts a spotlight that threatens to illuminate the clan’s business activities.
Now, Gwen’s employer, a private investigation firm in Knoxville, assigns her the cold case of Remy Landry, a college student missing for three years. When Gwen’s investigation, which is being paid for by a shadowy religious nonprofit, turns up not only suspects but more victims, the complex tangle of events and relationships from the past collide with the present. The plan to get everyone out of this alive involves a quid pro quo between strange bedfellows in a tactical alliance—the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Bitter Falls is the fourth book in Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake series of thrillers. The prologue makes clear the stakes involved in Bitter Falls, beginning with a chilling hook on the first page. While it’s not necessary to read the first three books before you open Bitter Falls, and Caine does a fine job of briefly explaining relationships and past plot points from the previous installments, I do recommend beginning with Stillhouse Lake and working forward to Bitter Falls for a more complete and nuanced understanding, not to mention a thrilling ride.
Bitter Falls is an elegantly constructed riddle, a fast-paced page-turner enhanced by sophisticated psychology. Multiple subplots involving each supporting character—especially Connor and his PTSD—are seamlessly interwoven with the main narrative, though the number of moving parts can sometimes feel overwhelming.
Gwen is shades of Jamie Lee Curtis in the last Halloween movie, who conducts the equivalent of active-shooter drills at home, which now feels “less like a refuge and more like a fortress.” A series of first-person narratives rotates between Gwen, Sam, Lanny, and Connor, Caine seeming to channel different ages and genders. This is an effective technique until switching between points of view interrupts the climactic acceleration, but increases the tension, inducing that frantic need to know, when you have to fight the urge to peek—a trade-off.
Caine slides social commentary of our modern times into the narrative through her characters’ ruminations. “The internet enables and organizes hate very effectively; it lets people believe they’re righteous warriors for justice when in reality they’re just clicking keys.” The many dark themes of Bitter Falls are leavened with an acerbic, sometimes absurdist, humor, much of it involving the Hillbilly Mafia—it’s not personal, it’s business. When Ma and Pa Belldene pay a call to encourage Gwen to leave town, they arrive bearing meatloaf, which everyone agrees is locally legendary and probably not poisoned.
Caine excels at suspense, creating real tension in not just the action scenes, but the quiet ones too. It’s always particularly creepy when faith, meant to comfort and sustain, is twisted. As Sam knows, there is “nothing scarier than fanatics who don’t feel like they have anything to lose.”
Rachel Caine is the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Amazon Charts bestselling author of more than fifty novels, including Wolfhunter River, Killman Creek, and Stillhouse Lake in the Stillhouse Lake series; the New York Times bestselling Morganville Vampires series; and the Great Library young adult series. She has written suspense, mystery, paranormal suspense, urban fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal young adult fiction. She is the winner of several national awards, and most recently was a finalist in both the International Thriller Writers awards and the Killer Nashville awards for her debut thriller novel, Stillhouse Lake.
Rachel lives and works in Fort Worth, Texas, with her husband, artist/actor/comic historian R. Cat Conrad, in a gently creepy house full of books. For more information, visit www.rachelcaine.com.