Dower House

Dower House
The Dower House Mystery by Patricia Wentworth

Murder with Clotted Cream

Murder with Clotted Cream
Murder with Clotted Cream by Karen Rose Smith

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

What She Knew by Gilly MacMillan - Feature and Review


In her enthralling debut, Gilly Macmillan explores a mother’s search for her missing son, weaving a taut psychological thriller as gripping and skillful as The Girl on the Train and The Guilty One.

In a heartbeat, everything changes…

Rachel Jenner is walking in a Bristol park with her eight-year-old son, Ben, when he asks if he can run ahead. It’s an ordinary request on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, and Rachel has no reason to worry—until Ben vanishes.

Police are called, search parties go out, and Rachel, already insecure after her recent divorce, feels herself coming undone. As hours and then days pass without a sign of Ben, everyone who knew him is called into question, from Rachel’s newly married ex-husband to her mother-of-the-year sister. Inevitably, media attention focuses on Rachel too, and the public’s attitude toward her begins to shift from sympathy to suspicion.

As she desperately pieces together the threadbare clues, Rachel realizes that nothing is quite as she imagined it to be, not even her own judgment. And the greatest dangers may lie not in the anonymous strangers of every parent’s nightmares, but behind the familiar smiles of those she trusts the most.

Where is Ben? The clock is ticking...


In the eyes of others, we’re often not who imagine ourselves to be. When we first meet someone, we can put our best foot forward, and give the very best account of ourselves, but still get it horribly wrong.

It’s a pitfall of life. I’ve thought about this a lot since my son Ben went missing, and every time I think about it, it also begs the question:
If we’re not who we imagine we are, then is anybody else?
If there’s so much potential for others to judge us wrongly, then how can we be sure that our assessment of them in any way resembles the real persons that lies underneath?

You can see where my train of thought’s going with this. Should we trust or rely on somebody just
Because they’re a figure of authority, or a family member?
Are any of our friendships and relationships really based on secure foundations?
If I’m in a reflective mood, I consider how different my life might have been if I’d had the wisdom to consider these things before Ben went missing.
If my mood is dark, I find fault in myself for not doing so, and my thoughts, repetitive and paralysing, punish me for days. A year ago, just after Ben’s disappearance, I was involved in a press conference which was televised.
 My role was to appeal for help in finding him. The police gave me a script to read. I assumed people watching it would automatically understand who I was, that they would see I was a mother whose child was missing, and who cared about nothing apart from getting him back. Many of the people who watched, the most vocal of them, thought the opposite. They accused me of terrible things. I didn’t understand why until I watched the footage of the conference- far too late to limit the damage, - but the reason was immediately obvious. It was because I looked like prey.
 Not appealing prey, a wide-eyed antelope say, tottering on spindly legs, but prey that’s
tottering on spindly legs, but prey that’s’ been well hunted, ruin ragged, and is near to the end.
  I presented the world with a face contorted by emotion and bloodied from injury, a body that was shaking with grief and a voice that sounded as if it had been roughly scraped from a desiccated mouth. If I’d imagined beforehand that an honest display of myself and my emotions, however, raw, might garner me some sympathy and galvanise people into helping me look for Ben, I was wrong.

They saw me as a freak show. I frightened people because I was someone to whom the worst was happening, and they turned on me like a pack of dogs.

I’ve had requests, since it was over to appear again on television. It was a sensational case, after all.
I always decline. Once bitten, twice shy. It doesn’t stop me imagining how the interview might go though. I envisage a comfortable TV studio and a kindly looking interviewer, a man who says, “Tell us a little about yourself, Rachel.”

 He leans back in his chair, which is set at a friendly angle to mine, as if we ‘d met for a chat in the pub. The expression on his face is the sort that someone might make if they were watching a cocktail being made for them, or an ice-cream sundae if that’s your preference. We chat and he takes time to draw me out, and lets me tell my side of the story.  I sound OK.
I’m in control.  I conform to an acceptable view of my mother. My answers are well considered.  They don’t challenge.
At no point do I spin a web of suspicion around myself by blurting out things that sound fine in my head. I don’t flounder, and then sink. This is a fantasy that can occupy long minutes of my time. The outcome is always the same: the imaginary interview goes really well, brilliantly, in fact, and the best thing about it is that the interviewer doesn’t ask the question that I hate most of all. It’s the question that a surprising number of people ask me. This is how they might phrase it:

‘Before you discovered that Ben had disappeared, did you have any intuition that something bad would happen to him?’
I hate the question because it implies some kind of dereliction of duty on my part. It implies that if I were a more instinctive mother, a better mother, then I would have had a sense that my child was in danger, or should have done.  How do I respond? I just say ‘No.’, It’s a simple enough answer, but people often look at me quizzically, brows furrowed in that particular expression where a desire to mine someone for gossip overwhelms sympathy for their plight.

Softly crinkled foreheads and inquisitive eyes ask me, Really? Are you sure? How can that be?

I never justify my answer. ‘No’ is all they need to know. I limit my answer because my trust in others has been eroded by what happened, of course it has.

Within many of my relationships doubt remains like slivers of broken glass, impossible to see and liable to draw book even after you thought you’d swept them all away.

There are very few people that I know I can trust now, and they anchor my existence. They know the whole of my story.

  A part of me thinks I would be willing to talk to others about what happened, but only if I could be sure that they’d listen to me. They’d have to let me get to the end of my tale without interrupting, or judging me, and they’d have to understand that everything I did, I did for Ben.
Some of my actions were rash, some dangerous, but they were all for my son, because my feelings for him were the only truth I knew.

If someone could bear to be the wedding guest to my ancient mariner, then in return for the gift of their time and their patience and their understanding, I would supply every detail.
 I think that’s a good bargain. We all love to be thrilled by the vicarious experience of other people’s ghastly lives after all.

Really, I’ve never understood why haven’t thought of an English word for ‘Schadenfreude’.
Perhaps we’re embarrassed to admit that we feel it.

Better to maintain the illusion that butter wouldn’t melt in our collective mouths.
My generous listener would no doubt be surprised by my story, because much of what happened went unreported. It would be just like having their very own exclusive.

When I imagine telling this fictional listener my story, I think that I would start it by answering that I hated question properly, for the first time, because it’s relevant.

I would start the story like this:
When Ben went missing I didn’t have any intuition. None whatsoever. I had something else on my mind. It was a pre-occupation with my ex-husband’s new wife.


What She KnewWhat She Knew by Gilly Macmillan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What She Knew by Gilly Macmillian is a 2016 William Morrow Paperbacks publication.

This is one of those harrowing stories in which a child is abducted, as the clock tick tocks along, and each moment that passes makes the situation more hopeless.

In this case, Rachel Jenner’s son, Ben, is abducted while they are out walking their dog. Once the critical missing is reported, Rachel’s life is upended in ways she never could have imagined and the repercussions will haunt her for a long time to come.

This is a fine example of what happens when a case like this one catches the attention of the press. Rachel is blamed for taking her eye off her son for a short time, her family and friends endure a shocking invasion of privacy, buried secrets are revealed, and the investigation winds up in turmoil.

The story alternates between Rachel’s POV and the head investigator, DI Jim Clemo's perspective, which is an interesting set up, since Jim’s personal demons have landed him in the psychologist's office.

The novel is partly a police procedural, and follows Jim’s investigation and all the interviews conducted, the leads that come through, and the legwork involved. The toll the case takes on Jim is apparent and he becomes obsessed with finding Ben and bringing him home to his frantic mother.

The novel also highlights Rachel’s journey, as she faces public scrutiny, absorbs shocking revelations, and has all her solid relationships slip and slide away from her, while she finds strength from a few unlikely sources.

But, what stood out to me in this novel, was the portrait of a mother’s will, her strength, and incredible grit, as she faces every parent's worse nightmare. She never gives up hope, even when she’s feeling like she may shatter into a million pieces. While Rachel initially had that ‘deer in the headlights’ vibe going on, she rises to the occasion, becoming quite a fighter, learning invaluable life lessons along the way, and winning my deepest admiration.

Racing against the clock setups always have that taut, edgy feel to them, and this book is no exception to that rule, but the story is deep on many levels, examining the toll a case like this one takes on all parties involved.

The author doesn’t hold back here and the characters are flawed, damaged, and fragile, but also human and so real, they remain in your mind long after you finish the book.

Overall, this is a terrific crime drama, and mystery thriller, and again, I continue on my trend this week, by discovering another incredible new talent, who makes a strong impression with this debut novel.

Well done!



Gilly Macmillan grew up in Swindon, Wiltshire, England, and also lived in Northern California in her late teens. She worked at The Burlington Magazine and the Hayward Gallery before starting a family. Since then she’s worked as a part-time photography teacher and is a full-time mom.

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