A Gathering of Secrets by Linda Castillo. (Mystery/Crime Novel, 2018).
About two weeks ago I took a welcome break from some of the harsher and more violent books I’ve been reading for a gentler, even heartwarming older novel. That one presented a highly idealized, not to say whitewashed, vision of life among the Amish. Now, in the latest of award-winning best-selling author Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series, we get a much darker picture of life among these self-described Plain People.
That’s not to say that Castillo’s main character doesn’t give the Amish their due.
Kate, a small town Police Chief in rural Ohio, was herself raised Amish and still respects many aspects of their lifestyle. But she survived sexual assault at age 14, killing her attacker in self-defense and later was shunned by most of her family for embracing modern contemporary culture. She knows all-too-well how damaging and painful the reluctance of this tradition-bound community to deal openly with certain unpleasant truths can be. In fact, the tendency of unacknowledged and painful secrets to pile up, building to explosive levels, is at the center of this book.
Kate freely admits she isn’t an unbiased observer of Amish society. Yet it’s this frankness that makes her a powerfully compelling first-person narrator. There are also by necessity chapters where she isn’t present that revert to third-person, showing readers some (but not all) of what the Chief must discover to solve her case.
The case involves a brutal act of revenge. A barely legal-age Amish farm boy is lured to the family barn for a late-night tryst, only to be locked in and burned alive in a case of arson. A lot of people liked Danny Gingerich, but obviously some others had a wildly different opinion of him. What had he done to make a person or persons unknown want him done away with in such a grotesque manner?
The short and disturbing prologue that preceded Danny’s introduction and his shocking death certainly clues the reader in on the fact that all is not well among the local buggy-driving Amish. How these two deadly incidents, six months apart, are connected will become clear in time.
Meanwhile, we also get a good sense of who Kate is and explore her relationship with another cop. The loving secret they share survives this volume, but will undoubtedly come into the open soon–but their choice.
Besides the tragic costs of abusive secrets and the see-no-evil approach to them that it exacts, the book also helps readers better understand variations within the Amish community. Castillo reminds us that they aren’t monolithic in their response to modernity, ranging from the “beachy” Amish who use selected technology without guilt all the way to the most conservative groups, like the Swartentrubers. Watching Kate navigate through these varied groups is culturally instructive. It’s a nice and painless bonus to those of us who’ve had little or no contact with actual Amish.
I won’t kid anyone: The truths Kate uncovers are dark and sad in the extreme. She does her duty as a law enforcer, despite personal misgivings. Murder can not be justified or excused, no matter the provocation.
A Gathering of Secrets is another strong crime novel by a successful and skilled author.