In the eighties a serial killer, called the Butcher naturally, was terrifying the Seattle area, until he was killed by police captain Edward Shank. Thirty-odd years later Shank’s grandson Matt unearths a family secret so horrible that it will endanger his and his family’s future. Samantha Marquez, who happens to be Matt’s girlfriend, is a true-crime author who suspects that her mother was killed by the Butcher, even though her murder occurred years after his death.
On the surface it seems like an unassuming pot-boiler, but Jennifer Hillier is swinging for the fences here, and while The Butcher may not quite be a grand slam I would say that it’s pretty damn close. Ms. Hillier takes a massive risk right up front by revealing the killer’s identity right off the bat, and trust in her skills to keep the tension up despite this unorthodox move. It works; The Butcher is an excruciating exercise in narrative tension. What makes it so tense isn’t that the plot is unusually twisted; it’s taut but not full of block-buster turns. What she does do very well is make us feel for all of the lives that are slowly being ruined but this gruesome tale. Ms. Hillier also takes the risk of having more than a few unlikeable characters play very important parts in her story. Likeable people aren’t a necessity but if one of the major characters had been a little bit more sympathetic it might have made the ride a bit easier. Some of the other lesser characters were a bit flimsy as well. They advanced the plot and played their roles, but a bit more nuance and this book would have been on an entirely different level. As it is, it’s more of a matter of picking nits than anything else.
The main characters were well-drawn, and the prose was solid, if unspectacular. That sounds a bit like I am damning it with faint praise, but in thrillers a lot of the time it’s more important to write transparent rather than showy prose, and that’s what Ms. Hillier does here. For the record, it’s a lot harder than it looks you have to give it time though. It took me a while to get into this book, and while a slow start is not necessarily a bad thing, it is a gamble, because some readers don’t have the patience to let a book sneak up on them. It works well here, and mixed with Ms. Hillier’s willingness to take some big chances it made The Butcher one of those clichés; a book that’s hard to put down until you reach the end.