DEATH NOTICE is Todd Ritter’s first novel, and it’s a really good one. The small, picturesque Pennsylvania town of Perry’s Hollow is rocked by the murder of local farmer George Winnick, whose body is found in a homemade coffin beside the road. One of the most bizarre things about the murder is that the victim’s lips are sewn shut, which soon leads to the arrival of a special state police task force on the trail of a serial murderer known as the Betsy Ross Killer. But that’s not all. It seems that a death notice for the victim was faxed to the obituary writer at the newspaper before George Winnick was killed.
Ritter gives us several point-of-view characters in this novel. There’s Kat Campbell, the chief of the local two-person police force, who’s also a single mother with a son who has Down’s Syndrome. The head of the task force is Nick Donnelly, whose own sister was murdered by a serial killer when Nick was a boy. Then there’s the obituary writer, Henry Goll, also known as Henry Ghoul because he shuns much human contact and carries terrible scars from a tragic accident in his past.
Yes, this is one of those modern mystery novels filled with much angst and brooding and tragic pasts. It’s to Ritter’s credit that he gets past this set-up that’s rapidly becoming a cliché and succeeds in making them believable characters, as well as making the reader care about them. It helps that he’s come up with a good plot as well. Several times during the course of the book, it appears that the mystery has been solved, only to have a new twist crop up, along with fresh murder victims, of course. Everything leads up to a wonderful, over-the-top climax that’s reminiscent of something out of a weird menace pulp from the Thirties. (For those of you unfamiliar with them, the weird menace pulps were a lurid, very entertaining sub-genre featuring stories filled with grotesque horror trappings and endings that featured rational, rather than supernatural, explanations. In other words, they were the forerunners of the basic Scooby-Doo plot, only played seriously for the most part.)
But to get back to DEATH NOTICE, yes, I figured out who the killer was, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel. Good characters, a great pace, enough clues to satisfy fans of fair play detective yarns, enough gore for horror readers, and that dynamite ending . . . what’s not to like? This doesn’t strike me as the first of a series, but it could be. Whether it is or not, it’s a very strong debut and has me looking forward to Todd Ritter’s next book. DEATH NOTICE will be out in about a week, and I highly recommend it.