Book Review

Dog Rose Dirt by Jen Williams

What if your mother had been writing to a serial killer?

A convicted murderer with a story to tell

Serial killer Michael Reave – known as The Red Wolf – has been locked in Belmarsh Prison for over 20 years for the brutal and ritualistic murders of countless women.

A grieving daughter with a secret to unearth

Ex-journalist Heather Evans returns to her childhood home after her mother’s inexplicable suicide and discovers something chilling – hundreds of letters between her mother and Reave, dating back decades.

A hunt for a killer ready to strike again

When the body of a woman is found decorated with flowers, just like his victims, Reave is the only person alive who could help. After years of silence, he will speak to Heather, and only Heather.

If she wants to unearth the truth and stop further bloodshed, she’ll have to confront a monster.

Jen Williams is best known as a fantasy author having penned the Copper Cat and Winnowing Flame trilogies.  With Dog Rose Dirt, Williams makes her entry into the world of the crime thriller, and does so with aplomb.  This is a fantastically chilling serial killer novel that will have you hooked from the very first page. 

Heather is – or was – a journalist, and has recently returned to the town she grew up in after her mother’s suicide.  It’s clear that Heather and her mother weren’t close, and the reasons for this take some time to be revealed, and yet her mother’s death does – understandably – leave her reeling, not least because of the unexpected nature of it.  While sorting through her mother’s belongings, she comes across a collection of letters written by Michael Reave – a convicted serial killer – that indicate a long and detailed correspondence between them.  It’s a shocking revelation to Heather, who sees her mother as someone virtuous and holier than thou. 

As if that wasn’t enough, there is a potential copycat on the loose, emulating the atrocities committed by Michael Reave.  With few leads, the police ask Heather to talk to Reave, hoping to leverage that connection he had with her mother to their advantage.  Wanting to understand more about her mother – her life and death – Heather agrees, and having worked as a journalist she’s used to asking probing and difficult questions.  Plus, it’s an opportunity to spend some time with the none too shabby DI Ben Parker 😉

I liked Heather as a character.  She’s very much like the rest of us – flawed, a bit messed up in some ways, and trying to juggle all the necessities of life just like everyone else.  Her past is most intriguing – why she left her role as a journalist isn’t immediately clear, and yet there’s clearly some event associated with this departure which is revealed later in the novel.  Of course, being given exclusive access to a convicted serial killer puts her in a very interesting position, and perhaps the opportunity to get back into journalism.  As she starts thinking more down that route, the reader can see exactly how things are going to turn out.  It’s one of those moments where you want to shake the character to try and make them see sense.  I liked her, but certainly didn’t approve of her actions at times, even if I could understand her rationale.

Williams’ serial killer – Michael Reave – is an interesting character, and one who cast in the mould of the likes of Bundy – the ones that you wouldn’t suspect based on appearances alone, the ones about whom you might say “he doesn’t seem the sort”. In his conversations with Heather, he comes across as charming and intelligent, and it’s hard to reconcile this character with the atrocities that he is accused of – he’s a bit oddball, but doesn’t seem like a monster.  And he has always claimed his innocence – with a potential copycat on the loose it does make the reader question his incarceration. 

Throughout the novel, Williams explores family relationships and the ways in which these are not always straightforward.  For Heather and her mother, the breakdown in the relationship came short after the death of Heather’s father, with Heather leaving home shortly afterwards. While things were strained between them, I think that Heather does grieve over her mother’s death – perhaps for the missed opportunity for reconciliation or the chance to get to know her as an adult and therefore on a more equal footing.  Dog Rose Dirt also subtly explores nature vs. nurture throughout the novel, taking an unusual approach as we start to understand the characters involved in more detail, what makes them who they are, and whether the right nurturing can change an individual’s path through life.

Dog Rose Dirt is a wonderfully creepy novel, and probably not one to read when you’re home alone as I did!  I hope that Williams continues to explore the genre as I think that she brings something a little different to it.  Recommended to all fans of dark crime thrillers.

Published by Harper Collins, Dog Rose Dirt is available now in hardback, eBook, and audio formats with the paperback scheduled for publication in January 2022.


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