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Dan Chaon’s ‘Ill Will’

Evocative Page Turner à la Dennis Lehane or TV’s ‘True Detective’


Dustin Tillman’s wife is dead of cancer. His older son, Dennis, off at college, has thoroughly rejected him, while his younger son, Aaron, has become a heroin addict. Now, after nearly 30 years, Dustin’s foster brother, Rusty, has been released from prison after DNA evidence has exonerated him for the murder of Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle. To top it off, Dustin’s frequent bouts of deep confusion have been getting worse — he’s having an even harder time than usual distinguishing reality from fantasy. Add to the mix a string of possible serial killings — until the novel’s end, nothing in this book is certain — and an ex-cop who wants Dustin to get involved in solving them, and no one could accuse author Dan Chaon of not giving his characters sufficient narrative trouble.

The perspective shifts from Dustin to Aaron and back again, and we also briefly see the world through Rusty’s and Dennis’s eyes. Text messages pop up on the page and point-of-view shifts sometimes appear in parallel columns. However, these tactics never seem like postmodernist tricks: Chaon is always pushing his gripping, grim story forward.

And the story is grim. Chaon writes with grace and economy, but he is also a lover of popular culture and Ill Will is as evocative of TV series like True Detective and Fargo as it is the fiction of Dennis Lehane and Richard Price. It’s often nighttime, the spaces the characters inhabit are frequently claustrophobic, and an air of menace hangs over even the most innocent-seeming actions. In short, this is one of those page-turning novels where the reader can be forgiven for hesitating to actually turn the page, rightfully fearing that what comes next won’t be pretty.

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