‘Dog Rose Dirt’ is the first crime thriller by Jen Williams, known for her adult fantasy trilogies ‘The Winnowing Flame’ and ‘The Copper Cat’. As a fan of ‘The Winnowing Flame’ series, I was curious how her writing would translate into crime fiction – and the answer is with aplomb. ‘Dog Rose Dirt’ is a gripping, dark crime thriller full of twists and atmosphere. To those familiar with the genre, many of the twists are predictable, but they’re brilliantly written, leaving this a fast-paced and enjoyable read.
Heather Evans has been almost estranged from her mother, Colleen, for years – but when her mother unexpectedly commits suicide, she’s forced back to her childhood home to put her affairs in order. There, she makes an alarming discovery – stacks of letters from the serial killer Michael Reave, otherwise known as the Red Wolf. Reave has been in prison for decades – but the letters take on a more sinister turn with the appearance of a copycat killer, borrowing Reave’s tableau of removing his victims’ hearts and decorating their bodies with flowers. Determined to figure out how her mother knew Reave – and why she might have committed suicide – Heather teams up with DI Ben Parker to interview Reave. However, he only talks in riddles. The more he says, the less Heather understands – and as mysterious things start happening at home, Heather starts to wonder if approaching the truth is putting her own life in danger.
Heather is a bit of a mess. Once a journalist, she’s been fired from her job and picks up odd bits of work as a freelancer. She has friends, but no serious relationships – and all her friends are worried about her. She’s self-centred, rash, and has terrible coping strategies – but she also has moments of brilliance, a keen wit that must have served her well as a journalist, and a knack for knowing when others are lying. She’s not necessarily a likeable protagonist, but she’s an intriguing one, and she feels incredibly real. Its hard at times to see what her friends see in her – she asks a lot without giving much back – but then, with her mother’s death, the loss of her job, and all the other upheavals going on in her life, its understandable that she sometimes forgets that everyone else has a life and responsibilities to.
The story is mostly from Heather’s perspective, with occasional cutaway chapters showing the victims of the new Red Wolf. This works well – it makes the atmosphere darker, humanising each victim by showing snippets of their lives. The cutaway chapters increase in frequency later in the book, adding to the sense of urgency in solving the puzzle and identifying the killer.
There isn’t so much an overarching plot as several closely intertwined threads. There’s the mystery of Heather’s mothers’ death – why such a seemingly stable woman would commit suicide. Then there’s the copycat killer – or possibly even the original killer, if Reave is as innocent as he claims. Finally, there’s Colleen’s relationship with Reave, and to what extent this ties into everything else. This all works seamlessly, moving at a rapid pace and remaining engaging throughout. Many of the twists are genre tropes, lending them an air of predictability, but the way they’re done is skillful and fits the story well. It would feel unnatural if they weren’t written that way.
This is a dark story. The atmosphere is one of the highlights – there’s a constant shadow hanging over every scene, a sense that things aren’t quite what they seem. There’s a lot of foreshadowing – too much in places, with twists that may otherwise have been a surprise becoming obvious – but it lends a sense of foreboding, the reader realising secrets that Heather hasn’t clocked yet. Those sensitive to graphic violence, death, desecration of a corpse, incest, coercion, and child abuse may want to avoid this, although it handles its subject matter well – never glorifying it, and never glossing over the impact.
Overall, ‘Dog Rose Dirt’ is an excellent entry to the crime thriller genre and showcases Jen Williams’ versatility as an author. Recommended for fans of dark, atmospheric crime thrillers, messy characters, and complex family relationships.
Thanks to NetGalley and Harper Collins for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Harper Collins
Hardback: 22nd July 2021