Sworn To Silence, by Linda Castillo

>> Friday, July 25, 2014

TITLE: Sworn To Silence
AUTHOR: Linda Castillo

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st in the Kate Burkholder series

Some secrets are too terrible to reveal. Some crimes are too unspeakable to solve...

In Painters Mill, Ohio, the Amish and “English” residents have lived side by side for two centuries. But sixteen years ago, a series of brutal murders shattered the peaceful farming community. A young Amish girl named Kate Burkholder survived the terror of the Slaughterhouse Killer... but ultimately decided to leave her community.

A wealth of experience later, Kate has been asked to return to Painters Mill as chief of police. Her Amish roots and big-city law enforcement background make her the perfect candidate. She’s certain she’s come to terms with her past—until the first body is discovered in a snowy field.

Kate vows to stop the killer before he strikes again. But to do so, she must betray both her family and her Amish past—and expose a dark secret that could destroy her.

Linda Castillo used to write Romantic Suspense, and I always thought her books were very good. They were very dark, the sort of stories that put the reader through an emotional wringer, but in the end they were emotionally satisfying and felt worth reading.

With her Kate Burkholder series she has moved away from the romance genre into mystery. Sworn to Silence is the first in the series, and introduces Kate, a woman who was raised in the Amish community of Painters Mill but decided to leave it after her rumspringa. Kate became a police officer in the big city, but after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she moved back to Painters Mill to become the chief of police.

It's usually pretty uncomplicated work, but everything changes when one of her deputies finds the body of a woman in a field. She has been murdered and shows signs of horrific torture. And what shocks everyone even more is the Roman numeral XXIII carved into her stomach. Sixteen years earlier, a serial killer terrorised Painters Mill. His victims, all killed in the same way as this latest one, had numerals carved into their stomachs. The first was IV and, over the following couple of years, the numbers went up to IX. This was a detail that was never released to the public.

Seeing the XXIII, then, the conclusion is inescapable for all those in law-enforcement. The murders just stopped after victim IX. Has the killer returned? The only one who knows that can't be true is Kate. She believes that sixteen years earlier she killed the man who was intending to make her victim number X. So why is she still investigating the case, you ask? Well, that would be because her family decided the police should not be told. And now Kate must decide whether catching the killer will require making those secrets public.

Keeping her secrets becomes even harder when the town council, dissatisfied about her responsiveness to their concerns about scaring away tourists, call the state's Bureau of Criminal Investigation for help. Agent John Tomasetti arrives before Kate is even told about this, and suddenly, Kate has an experienced agent to deceive as well.

Sworn To Silence started strong. I found the characters interesting and was intrigued by the story (yes, for some strange reason, I'm one of those who aren't tired and bored of serial killer stories). And I was fully engaged throughout, and turning the pages like crazy (or rather, the audiobook equivalent, which is basically staying on the treadmill for a lot longer than intended!).

As the story moved forward, however, issues that had been niggling at the start turned bigger. The main amongst them was Kate herself. On one hand, she's a really intriguing, imperfect character. There's the Amish angle, which makes Kate's perspective particularly interesting. She's someone who knows the community very well, having been brought up in it, but who's now very much an outsider. I liked how Castillo portrayed that as just being part of her and how it affected how she dealt with the community. There's also the fact that investigating the murders while keeping her own secrets is definitely not straightforward. That's an interesting complication, but I had some problems with how she actually did so. Kate's efforts to keep the secret of what happened all those years earlier does compromise her investigation, mainly because it keeps her from calling in other law enforcement agencies for help, which she herself admits she would have otherwise done. I lost some respect for her because of that. Also, her investigation didn't seem too logical to me. There were some very obvious gaps that were never even considered. For instance, Kate and her team spend no time investigating how the victims were taken by the killer. Surely that would have told them a lot? Like: is this someone the victims knew? What sort of vehicle must he have to transport them? Could anyone have seen something?

Tomasetti has potential to be developed into an interesting character over the next several books, but he feels a bit inconsistent here. This case is his last chance, but he's not sure he wants it. A couple of years earlier, when working in Narcotics, one of the people he was investigating killed his wife and children. John went rogue and got his revenge, later being exonerated by a grand jury. In the time since, he's spent most of his time drinking, abusing prescription drugs and bunking off work. Management at BCI decide it's time to get rid of him but dare not fire him, so they instead send him off to assist in a high-profile case. The thinking is that, with his current psychological state, he'll obviously mess up. Armed with an official complaint from the local police, they'll be able to get rid of him. When he's introduced, he's majorly screwed up. He's barely functioning. But he's perfectly fine in Painters' Mill, apart from a bit of mild drinking! There's the beginning of a romantic relationship between him and Kate (which I assume will be further developed in the following books), and it's sort of suggested that this has helped him get his issues on track. I wasn't convinced. He was too messed up at the start for "cured by meeting a good woman" to work. Still, Castillo might be able to pull it off if she makes it clear in further books that this was just a first step, and that he gets proper professional help.

Just as with the characters, I had mixed feelings about the suspense plot. It's absorbing and tense. As I mentioned earlier, I had some issues with the lack of logic of the investigation, but I was still engaged in the twists and turns. The final sections, once Kate finally gets hold of the right thread and starts pulling, were incredibly tense. I was literally talking to the characters out loud, getting really angry at them for making what I thought were the wrong decisions (I'd guessed the culprit not long before and thought some of the evidence Kate was collecting was a lot more convincing than she or John seemed to think). So yeah, I was definitely emotionally involved!

Fortunately, I was able not to get too emotionally involved when it came to the description of the victims and what had been done to them. It was graphic, very graphic and truly horrific. I thought it actually crossed the line into too much a couple of times. I'll be honest, I would rather have had a bit less detail, but I can understand the author's choices here.

Finally, vigilatism is a major theme in the book, and I wasn't very comfortable with how few qualms anyone (even the narrative) had about it. I was more or less ok with Kate and John's actions in the past. They were both under enormous psychological strain, Kate actually protecting her own life. I'm not endorsing John's actions, especially, but I do understand them. It's the smaller things that happen during the investigation that I was really bothered by. A couple of times the police question people they have reason to think are lowlifes and all-around nasty pieces of shit, and when they do so, they go completely over the line. The one that's most illustrative is when Kate and Tomasetti question this guy who works at the slaughterhouse and is a recently released sex offender, having been in jail during the period no murders took place. Obviously, he looks great as a suspect on paper. As soon as they meet him, however, it becomes clear that this guy does not have the right physical characteristics to be the killer, and they have absolutely no reason to think he might have any valuable information. They still barge into his house and harass him. They threaten him. Tomasetti forces his way into the guy's house while he's speaking to Kate on his back door, and then he goes into his bedroom and looks around his computer without a warrant, finding pretty mainstream porn and behaving as if this is a unerring sign of a deviant human being (seriously, this dude needed to start listening to Dan Savage's podcast). Kate actually smacks the man on the side of the head when he's not 100% forthcoming with his responses. Their attitude really angered me. This guy might be a piece of shit, but it's not the police's role to dispense justice. They needed to, at the very least, not break the law.

So, not a 100% success, but I was intrigued enough to read on in the series. I'm interested in Kate and John, and the setting, with Amish and 'English' coexisting, and our main protagonist right in the middle of that divide, has a lot of potential.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The audiobook is narrated by Kathleen McInerney, and I liked her style. Most of the action is narrated in 1st person by Kate, and the voice she did for her felt right. There was enough emotion put into the narration, especially at particularly tense moments, to have the performance come alive, but it never crossed the line into overacting. I wasn't crazy about the voice McInerney did for John -a bit too whispery/raspy-, but it didn't really bother me.


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