Dog Rose Dirt by Jen Williams

July 30, 2021

When prodigal daughter Heather Evans returns to her family home after her mother’s baffling suicide, she makes an alarming discovery–stacks and stacks of carefully preserved letters from notorious serial killer Michael Reave. The “Red Wolf,” as he was dubbed by the press, has been in prison for over twenty years, serving a life sentence for the gruesome and ritualistic murders of several women across the country, although he has always protested his innocence. The police have had no reason to listen, yet Heather isn’t the only one to have cause to re-examine the murders. The body of a young woman has just been found, dismembered and placed inside a tree, the corpse planted with flowers. Just as the Red Wolf once did.

What did Heather’s mother know? Why did she kill herself? And with the monstrous Red Wolf safely locked inside a maximum-security prison, who is stalking young women now? Teaming up with DI Ben Parker, Heather hopes to get some answers for herself and for the newest victims of this depraved murderer. Yet to do that, she must speak to Michael Reave herself, and expose herself to truths she may not be ready to face. Something dark is walking in the woods, and it knows her all too well.

I think there is a moment in everybody’s life when they realise that their parents have a past, that they were young once too. If you’re lucky that revelation isn’t too painful. It might even help you to understand them a little better than you did before. What happens though, if there are secrets hidden away? Dark things that you are really better off not knowing. In Dog Rose Dirt by Jen Williams, a young journalist discovers her recently deceased mother had more than her fair share of skeletons rattling about in the dim and distant past.

Unsurprisingly, Heather exhibits a dogged determination when it comes to uncovering the truth. Having worked in the media, she has developed that uncanny knack of worrying at a story until the knotted threads unravel and all the detail is laid bare. The downside to that tenacity is that when it is something intensely personal, like her fractious relationship with her mother, Heather still refuses to let go. What starts as curiosity quickly becomes an obsession that starts to eat away at her. Heather’s mental state becomes more and more fragile the further down the rabbit hole she travels. How does her mother know a notorious killer? Why is there a copycat that has picked up where the Red Wolf left off? Is Heather jumping to conclusions? Is it just her mind playing tricks or is there something more sinister afoot? I think it’s the mark of a successful psychological thriller when there is a niggling uncertainty in the characters right up until the end.

Dog Rose Dirt has a subtle air of disquiet that runs through the entirety of the story. Williams delivers a slow burn of a tale that expertly drip-feeds us tantalising clues about the Red Wolf and his legacy. The atmospheric narrative continues to build as Heather becomes more and more entangled in Michael Reave’s life. The further she delves into her mother’s relationship with the killer, the more questions Heather has. In addition, there are a handful of chapters that detail Reave’s formative years. This insight helps to flesh out his character and adds depth to his motivations.

Streaming entertainment services need to be making a beeline to Jen Williams front door. This is the sort of novel that is ripe for translation to the screen. Netflix did a cracking job with Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. They could easily achieve the same levels of success with Dog Rose Dirt. You’ll be pleased to know I’m putting together my dream cast list already.

I’ll happily admit I’m a big fan of Jen Williams fantasy novels* so I was looking forward to her take on a different genre. I’m glad to report her first foray into crime/thriller territory is on par with her other work. There are some neat, well-executed twists and turns in a story peppered with plenty of suitably creepy moments. Things are unashamedly dark and throughout the novel there are scenes that almost veer into the realms of psychological horror. This gives the entire plot a more realistic air. There is nothing fantastical in this instance, Dog Rose Dirt explores an all too human evil.

Dog Rose Dirt is published by Harper Collins and is available now.

My musical recommendation to accompany Dog Rose Dirt is the soundtrack to Don’t Breathe by Roque Baños. Musically it’s about as tense as you can get. If that isn’t a perfect fit with this novel, I don’t know what is.

*You’ll find many of them reviewed on this very website should you care to look.

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