The Dead Will Tell a Non-Taxing Beach Thriller

Linda Castillo
Minotaur Books, 320 pages, ISBN 978-1250029577
* * *

Call this one a classic beach read novel. This is book six of Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series. For those, like me, who came in late, Burkholder is chief of police in Painters Mill, an Ohio town analogous to Lancaster, Pennsylvania in that it’s in the middle of Amish country. Kate is perfect for the job in that she grew up Amish and speaks their special Deutsch tongue. Tag line: She gave up her bonnet for a badge!

Kate is an intuitive crime solver, not a hard-broiled detective; in fact, I imagined her as a bit like Marge Gunderson from the movie Fargo, except Kate has a damaged lover, former state agent John Tomasetti, whose family was murdered by vengeful mobsters. Family murder is at the heart of The Dead Will Tell, whose mysteries begin when an elderly businessman is found hanging in a barn. It looks like a suicide, except that the corpse also has a slug in him and an Amish peg doll rammed into his throat. Other pillars of Painters Mill begin to receive notes bearing messages such as “I know what you did” and “You were there.” As the body count and peg doll counts rise, Kate begins to think these events may be linked to a thirty-year-old unsolved crime: the murder of Amish woodworker Willis Hochstetler, the abduction/presumed assassination of his wife Wanetta, and a subsequent fire that killed four of his five children. Even more unsettling are reports that Wanetta’s ghost has been spotted. That eliminates the logical suspect, surviving Hochstetler son, William.

Burkholder’s search takes her deep into old archives and the present-day Amish community, not to mention that it unclosets a few local skeletons. It also keeps her busy at exactly the time that she fears Tomasetti will seek victim’s revenge on a rich punk implicated in his family’s murder, but freed on a legal technicality. Okay, so none of this rises to the level of the 1985 film Witness. And, yes, the overlapping family murders are more contrived than convincing. As mysteries go, this one isn’t hard to figure out; unless you believe in ghosts, there’s only one logical explanation. Nor can I praise the book’s literary merits. (Let’s just say the prose wouldn’t tax a teen.) It is exactly as I categorized it: a page-turner thriller to consume under a beach umbrella. Like that ice cream cone in the other hand, The Dead Will Tell is a guilty pleasure. You can repent by reading a Dickens novel on the treadmill when you get home.
Rob Weir


The Rosie Project a Charmer from Start to Finish

THE ROSIE PROJECT (2014)           
Graeme Simsion
Simon & Schuster, 305 pages. ISBN: 978-1476729091
* * * * *

Imagine someone who's as handsome as Gregory Peck, as logical as Star Trek's Mr. Data, as numbers-driven as Raymond Babbitt (Rain Man), as practical as Thomas Gradgrind (Hard Times), as quirky as Ignatius Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces), and as prone to Asperger's meltdowns as Christopher Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). Do this and you're still a buck and some change short of Don Tillman, the protagonist of Graeme Simsion's runaway best seller The Rosie Project. This book has wowed reviewers around the globe and was recently optioned to Sony Pictures. Believe the hype for a change—The Rosie Project is both a heart-warming and a guffaw-out-loud kind of book.

It's been said that academia is a place where possession of a major character disorder is not necessarily a disqualifying characteristic for job candidates. That's certainly true for Don Tillman, a University of Melbourne genetics professor. He's a brilliant researcher, but a person with the social graces of a schoolboy. Don is seldom in trouble, though, because he is a stickler for rules, routine, and procedure. Boy, is he ever! He eats the same meals each week because it's more efficient to do so and he schedules everything from his martial arts exercises to lab research time down to the second. Don never sees his routines as, well, routine; they are simply pragmatic ways of maximizing his time. Ask Don how long he has owned a shirt and he can tell you down to the day. It's just one of many ways in which he is blissfully unaware of himself. Nor does he think it's odd that he has but two friends, a womanizing colleague named Gene, and his psychologist wife, Claudia who doubles at Don's informal therapist. Don doesn't realize Claudia is also analyzing him, but no matter; he also doesn't realize that his guest lecture on Asperger's was better received by those who suffer from the syndrome than those who don't because he was speaking to his own tribe in the first instance.

About the only thing that troubles Don is that he's single, and that's an issue he approaches as he would any research conundrum. I defy you to read the chapters on designing a questionnaire for what Don dubs "the Wife Project" without snorting aloud. Or to remain stoic when he rejects one candidate as totally unsuitable because of a dispute over apricot ice cream! In an effort to get Don to loosen up a bit, his horn-dog friend Don tries to fix him up with Rosie Jaman in the sexist belief that getting Don laid will help him relax more around women. But Rosie flunks just about every category on Don's list–she's a smoker, vegetarian, slob, and non-exercising bon vivant. (She's also Goth gorgeous and whip smart.) Don doesn't see Rosie as a mate, but he is intrigued by her desire to discover her biological father. What better challenge for a geneticist than the "Rosie Project," a quest that will take the two of them across Australia, to New York City, and to some personal places neither of them anticipated?

This book is a charmer from start to finish–a wondrous balance between riotous humor, gasping embarrassment, and sweetness. You will snicker and laugh, but you will also find yourself yelling at the characters to see what's in front of their faces. Both Don and Rosie are unforgettable. The latter, in fact, might be the most seductively inappropriate mate since Alvy Singer fell hard for Annie Hall.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that you should read this book before the film comes out as there are nuances, exchanges, and internal thought processes within the text that I doubt will be as effective on the screen. Simsion has written a follow-up titled The Rosie Effect, which is set for North American release very shortly. I may delay reading that one–partly because of my distrust of sequels, but also because I'm still savoring act one.   Rob Weir


The Damnwells are Damn Good!

THE DAMNWELLS  (2015            )
The Damnwells
Rock Ridge Music
* * * *

"Money and Shiny Things," the opening track of the new album by The Damnwells, is ostensibly about a down-on-his-luck man trying to win the heart of a woman who is probably out of his class. It's tempting, though, to see it as the band's theme song. Just a few years back The Brooklyn-sired Damnwells were on the music industry fast track: four LPs, a lurking major label deal, TV and film soundtrack work, and stages shared with everyone from Dylan to Cheap Trick and The Dixie Chicks. A few personnel shakeups and shifting industry winds and it all fell apart.  The band's latest is an indie rock return to its roots, including a reunion with original percussionist Steven Terry. I have no idea what the majors might have been looking for, because The Damnwells are more talented than anything I've heard recently on MTV or the radio.

Among the things that's special about The Damnwells is that they simultaneously remind you of other people yet are uniquely themselves. "Kentexas" opens with an anthem-like swell reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen, but pulls back into a softer confessional of a man trying to walk the line between desire and faithfulness. By contrast, "Kill Me" feels like something from the mid-80s New Wave—a thick aural soup of cascading guitar runs, vocals, and electronic sounds puncturing a theme that's held together by Terry's rock-steady drumming. If that's not enough, "She Goes Down" has a sweet pop sheen; "Too Old to Die" has the feel and some of the vocal signatures of The Beatles in their late Abbey Road journey; and the album finishes off with "None of These Things," a song of loss and leaving that would be at home on CMT. The later is one of several change-of-pace songs on an album that pays attention to musical contexts. "Kill Me" is actually more typical of the band's approach in that there aren't many silences or spaces in their high-energy songs. The Damnwells prefer to rock out in shimmery, fulsome arrangements in which notes blend and meld, but they are wary of exhausting listeners and savvy enough to ratchet down with some recovery time. Moreover, Alex Denizen's vocals are the counterpoint to whatever roof-raising the instruments produce. His is a voice that's simultaneously strong but smooth–like hard rock with a butterscotch chaser.

This amazing album raises anew the question of whether those running the industry have an ounce of commonsense. At a time in which hip-hop has run out of creative steam, jazz is in the doldrums, and pop music is dire, the time seems ripe for a rock revival. Expect The Damnwells to be in the midst of that fray if it happens. Put simply, The Damnwells are damn good!
Rob Weir