by Todd Ritter
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Minotaur Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312622800
Date: 12 October 2010 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Perry Hollow, Pennsylvania was once a quiet, peaceful town until a vicious serial killer appeared. Chief Kat Campbell discovers a coffin-like box with farmer George Winnick lying dead inside; an autopsy reveals he was embalmed while still alive. The killer faxes Henry Goll, who writes obituaries for the Perry Hollow Gazette, a death notice prior to the corpse's discovery. Lieutenant Nick Donnelly of the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) heads a task force, believing that George was a victim of the notorious Betsy Ross Killer. Despite the concerted efforts of Kat, Henry, and Nick, the killer strikes again and again. Each time, the victim is found nailed inside a coffin-like box with their lips sewn shut, Abraham Lincoln pennies covering their eyes, and embalming fluid in their veins. Each time, a death notice, forewarning the victim's demise, is faxed to Henry.
Todd Ritter's engrossing debut Death Notice is a gruesome, terrifying mystery with disturbing images that caused me to cringe. There are scenes of torture and references to past episodes of child abuse. The idyllic setting and charming police chief heroine are those of a cozy mystery; however, the horrifyingly claustrophobic prologue definitely forewarns potential readers that this novel is more likely a horror mystery with a body count that continually rises as the novel progresses. The emotionally turbulent drama of likable characters coupled with bloody, nonstop action kept me turning pages. Having grown in love with the beautiful, picturesque town of Perry Hollow, Pennsylvania, and caring about its bucolic citizens, I was desperate to find the killer myself. I had my suspicions but no proof. I definitely didn't know why someone would so cruelly butcher and embalm innocent people. The serial killer is definitely insane, and extremely vindictive.
Perry Hollow once had a lumber mill around which the economy flourished. When it closed, the town had to rely on tourists in order to survive. The tourists came for the changing of the seasons and their respective holiday celebrations. Often compared to the fictional town of Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show, Perry Hollow had very little crime until George Winnick's embalmed corpse was found. Then the Pennsylvania State BCI and the media descended on this terrified town that became infamous for harboring a serial killer. Chief Kat Campbell, a hardworking, tough-as-nails single mother of a down syndrome son, is the likable heroine who is trying hard to bring peace back to Perry Hollow. Instead of committing a power struggle, she relinquishes her authority to Lieutenant Nick Donnelly and proves to be an extremely valuable asset as a member of his task force. She eventually develops a teenage-like crush for the handsome lieutenant who is an expert at capturing serial killers.
Two men must share the spotlight as hero for Death Notice. Like Kat, these admirable men have tragic pasts that involve the lost of loved ones. (Kat's husband left town because he couldn't handle a child with special needs; mostly, he couldn't handle marriage.) Nick's older sister Sarah was abducted and murdered by a serial killer. Unable to find closure, he still experiences nightmares. Consequently, he's devoted his entire life to capturing serial killers. Henry is the saddest character I've come across in a long time; my heart aches for his plight. He has endured a tremendous amount of emotional and physical scarring. A tragic car accident killed his wife Gia and left his face hideously marred with burns and cuts. Consequently, he lives like a hermit, writing obituaries, and loathes all social contact. Deana Swan, a local funeral home receptionist, is infatuated with Henry because he reminds her of her father who was scarred in a lumber mill accident. Henry's heart softens and a romance develops between Deana and him as the novel progresses.
During their investigation, Kat and Nick watch an actual embalming at the McNeil Funeral Home. The graphic descriptions made me reconsider cremation in lieu of burial. The embalming scene and many more gruesome ones like this make Death Notice not for the feint of heart. It's a bizarre, twisted mystery that the reader won't be able to easily forget after finishing the last pages. It is most highly recommended for fans of gritty, hardboiled mysteries. Unable to put it down, I read it in three days. It reminded me of the infamous horror film series Saw and its ever growing number of sequels. If you enjoyed Todd Ritter's disturbing debut, then I highly recommend Shaun Jeffrey's The Kult, which deals with similar themes. If you relish violent crime drama, then I recommend Stuart Neville's The Ghosts of Belfast and its sequel Collusion, David J. Schow's Internecine, Brian M. Wiprud's Buy Back and Thomas Kaufman's Drink the Tea: A Mystery.
I was hoping Todd Ritter would write a sequel to Death Notice. However, I don't think Perry Hollow could handle another serial killer. The first one practically destroyed it. Poor Kat just wants to live in peace.