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Reviewed by Viga Boland for Readers' Favorite
Upon reflection, when is a psychological thriller more psychological than thriller? When it’s The Water Hemlock by Casper Valentine. But before you conclude that this is a negative observation on this novel, it’s not at all. In fact, it’s a compliment. You see, what Valentine has created is a realistic look at what happens to people’s minds when they harbour a deadly secret, and over the years are riddled by the guilt they feel, both from their roles in an unfortunate accident and in their subsequent cover-up of the truth…meaning, it’s the psychological aspects that Valentine is most interested in exploring.
The cover-up happens because three young teens are terrified of the consequences when a fourth friend, Kenny, unfortunately dies while they are having fun in the woods. Instead of telling their parents or contacting authorities, they dump his body in a lake, hoping it will never be found. The body isn’t found, but as the boys mature, get jobs, marry or otherwise, each faces the burden of guilt in different ways: Danny gambles and drinks on a path of self-ruination; Josh finds religion; Buckley develops severe OCD; and Curtis becomes a cop. When Curtis suggests a reunion in a remote cabin, as much as they try to avoid the elephant in the room, it surfaces. When Danny decides it’s time to come clean, both he and Josh end up dead. How and why? Read The Water Hemlock to find out.
So is there a thriller side to this novel? Definitely. The story opens with Josh being visited by Kenny’s foul-smelling corpse. Once the friends are reunited in the cabin, Josh is visited again. As well, the others stumble across and save a stranger - whose leg has been caught in a bear trap - from near death. At night, floorboards creak in the cabin, then Danny is stabbed to death. Who did it? Was it one of them or the stranger or perhaps dead Kenny’s ghost? It is the ending that gave me pause and led me to the conclusion that Casper Valentine was more interested in the psychology than the thriller aspects of The Water Hemlock. The reader feels a mounting tension till almost the end, half expecting that both Curtis and Buckley will end up dead. Therein lies the realism, the logical conclusion that even when we feel guilty about something, we can get past it by coming clean and moving forward instead of looking behind. That’s an unexpected, but logical conclusion to this story. Enjoy!