No one who has read Dan Chaon’s fiction will be surprised to learn that Ill Will, his new novel, is relentlessly bleak. It’s a murder mystery and a literary thriller, a multilayered nonlinear narrative and a psychological portrait of the dark side of human nature. You’ll lose track of the number of deaths, but you’ll remember the daring storytelling and the skillful treatment of characters who live with repressed memories.
If you’re Dustin Tillman, a 41-year-old Cleveland psychologist, widower and father of two teenage sons, then you’ve got horrific memories to repress. When Dustin was 13, his parents and an aunt and uncle were murdered on the eve of a camping trip. A Pulitzer-nominated photograph of Dustin running from the scene with his twin cousins, Kate and Wave, became famous.
The murder was blamed on Dustin’s adopted older brother, Rusty, in part because of Dustin’s testimony; he claimed that Rusty had engaged in satanic rituals involving baby rabbits, a doll and a candlelit pentagram. Now, 27 years after the murder, DNA evidence exonerates Rusty, who has always proclaimed his innocence and contended that Dustin’s testimony was based on faulty recollection.
Rusty’s re-emergence is only one of the factors that complicate Dustin’s life. In addition to his wife’s death and his younger son’s growing heroin addiction, Dustin has a patient, a Cleveland police officer put on leave for a “psychological difficulty,” who recruits Dustin to help solve a series of murders of college-age men who have drowned on dates that follow a pattern. And the next date to fit the pattern is coming up.
Throughout Ill Will, Chaon plays with the novel form: second-person narration, emails, shifting perspectives, emojis and, most radically, parallel columns of prose that show concurrent thoughts and episodes in characters’ lives. The result could have been style for style’s sake, but, in Chaon’s capable hands, the novel is a brilliant depiction of mental illness. Not a pretty picture, but masterfully painted.