Review: Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Title: Ill Will by Dan Chaon
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery, Suspense
Length: 480 pages
Book Rating: C+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley


Two sensational unsolved crimes—one in the past, another in the present—are linked by one man’s memory and self-deception in this chilling novel of literary suspense from National Book Award finalist Dan Chaon.

“We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves.” This is one of the little mantras Dustin Tillman likes to share with his patients, and it’s meant to be reassuring. But what if that story is a lie?

A psychologist in suburban Cleveland, Dustin is drifting through his forties when he hears the news: His adopted brother, Rusty, is being released from prison. Thirty years ago, Rusty received a life sentence for the massacre of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. The trial came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults; despite the lack of physical evidence, the jury believed the outlandish accusations Dustin and his cousin made against Rusty. Now, after DNA analysis has overturned the conviction, Dustin braces for a reckoning.

Meanwhile, one of Dustin’s patients has been plying him with stories of the drowning deaths of a string of drunk college boys. At first Dustin dismisses his patient’s suggestions that a serial killer is at work as paranoid thinking, but as the two embark on an amateur investigation, Dustin starts to believe that there’s more to the deaths than coincidence. Soon he becomes obsessed, crossing all professional boundaries—and putting his own family in harm’s way.

From one of today’s most renowned practitioners of literary suspense, Ill Will is an intimate thriller about the failures of memory and the perils of self-deception. In Dan Chaon’s nimble, chilling prose, the past looms over the present, turning each into a haunted place.


Weaving back and forth in time, Ill Will by Dan Chaon is an intriguing psychological mystery about murders in the past that appeared to linked to the Satanic ritual abuse in the early ’80s and a possible serial killer in the present.

Just as Dustin Tillman learns his adopted brother Russell aka Rusty has been exonerated of the 1983 murders of his parents, aunt and uncle, his world is further rocked by unexpected news from his wife.  Just thirteen years old at the time of his family’s murders, it was Dustin’s and his cousin Kate’s testimony about Satanic rituals and other abuse that helped convict Rusty of the crimes. A year and a half after the news that shatters his life, Dustin and his youngest son Aaron share the same house, but Dustin is woefully unaware his son is in touch with Rusty. He also misses the very obvious signs that Aaron is in the throes of a nasty drug addiction. Instead of paying attention to his floundering son, Dustin is caught up in his patient Aqil Ozorowski’s conviction that a recent series of drownings is the work of a serial killer who is targeting young college men. As Aaron’s downward spiral continues at an alarming rate, his father becomes more involved with Aqil’s investigation of the drownings. Dustin does finally become aware that his son in is in deep trouble that goes beyond drugs and his family’s tangled history but is it too late to save him?

As a child, Dustin was quite imaginative but he is easy to manipulate and rather gullible. He is quite a few years younger than his adopted brother Russell and he is rather in awe of the older boy.  Through Dustin’s recollections of his childhood, it quickly becomes  apparent that Russell is rather troubled and his behavior towards Dustin is abusive on occasion.  Despite their unhealthy relationship, Dustin does not lose his starry eyed worship of Russell until the murders and Rusty’s subsequent conviction.

Dustin’s cousins Kate and Wave are closer in age to Rusty, and since the two families spend quite a bit of time together, the girls are also somewhat transfixed by their adopted cousin. The sisters also have a wild streak and they are a little promiscuous and they occasionally indulge in somewhat risky behavior.  At one time very close, Wave and Kate’s relationship becomes strained after their parents’ murders and soon after Rusty’s trial, they drift apart.

The two story arcs unfold through flashbacks to Dustin’s past and events that are taking place in the present. Some of these transitions from one time period to another are jarring and occur without warning. The novel is written from multiple points of view and the shifts from one perspective to another are often abrupt which makes the story feel somewhat disjointed. Many of the story’s narrators are quite unreliable which makes it impossible to separate fact from fiction. Several conversations drop off mid-sentence (and occasionally mid-word) and this contributes to the novel’s overall confusion. The narrative sporadically shifts into several pages of side by side columns which requires flipping back and forth between pages to read and this stream of consciousness format is frustrating.

Ill Will by Dan Chaon has an imaginative plot but the overall execution of the story is a little convoluted and somewhat difficult to follow. Some of the storylines do not really seem to go anywhere and the novel occasionally becomes bogged down in extraneous details that add little to the plot. The mysteries are interesting, but the pacing is slow and the storytelling is clunky and annoying.  The various story arcs do finally come together in a shocking twist but readers might be unsatisfied with novel’s somewhat ambiguous conclusion.

1 Comment

Filed under Ballantine Books, Contemporary, Dan Chaon, Ill Will, Mystery, Rated C+, Review, Suspense

One Response to Review: Ill Will by Dan Chaon

  1. Timitra

    Thanks Kathy for the review