Book review: Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo

Castillo I very much enjoyed this book. I shouldn’t have done if I am logical, as it is not only about a serial killer, but it concerns the murders of young women and girls in very gruesome, slow ways – topics on which I have more than once gone on record as saying “enough, already!”. So why did I like the novel?

Kate Burkholder is chief of police in the small town of Painters Mill, Ohio. She’s ex-Amish, under the bann from her teenage days, when she left her family and the local community (which makes up roughly half the town) for the ‘English’ (the other half). Kate is a  professional, competent police officer in her 30s who has built a good strong team and “back office”. As the book opens, she’s called out one freezing night because of some cows that have broken through a fence onto the road. Kate’s irritation quickly turns to shock when she discovers the mutilated body of….yes, you guessed it, a young woman.

What follows are the details of Kate’s investigation of the murder: a very readable and engaging account of the procedures and events that follow a crime, showing the effects on the individuals concerned and on this small community as a whole. Plot-wise, reader interest is maintained by the unusual twist that everyone on the team jumps to the conclusion that, because of a particular “signature” on the victims that was never made public, the murder was committed by a serial killer who struck several times around 16 years ago, but has never been heard of since. Why has he (presumed ‘he’) been silent for so long?

Kate, however, knows that the killer cannot be that person – and she has a certain, secret reason for this knowledge. Hence, she does not call in outside help to follow up that lead, but instead focuses her small team on other avenues of investigation. This is all very well until (inevitably) the killer strikes again – and then again, this time in the Amish community, and Kate is blamed for running an inadequate show. She becomes the victim of inter-jurisdictional and small-town politics as she struggles to keep her investigation on track, while having to follow up in secret her own dark past and that of her estranged family. The only good thing that seems to happen to her is the arrival of a profiler from Cincinnati (the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation) – but even he soon seems suspicious of Kate after the council receives an anonymous note via an Amish churchman.

This book is a great read, written in an assured style and with a fast pace, striking that difficult balance between providing enough details of the investigation and people involved in it, as well as a sense of place, without over-doing things. The story is a very good one, with several interesting angles to do with family, belief, loyalty, morality and so on. The suspense is high, especially when Kate is sidelined so tries to carry on her own investigation even after a (wrongly accused, in her view) suspect has been identified. Although the reader never doubts Kate’s integrity, there is enough of a question over what she did all those years ago to provide more impetus to the story and uncertainty about her current motives.

On the down side, the detailed descriptions of the murders are pointless. The novel would have been just as tense and exciting without the gory information about how these women and girls were tortured and killed. I feel it is simply unnecessary to provide these details – they aren’t necessary to make the villain seem even more bad. I hope they weren’t included for commercial purposes. Whatever the reason, I hope that the next book by Linda Castillo will cut down on these ghastly, explicit aspects. (There are other murders in the book which are just as or even more horrific than those in the main investigation, yet these are sketched rather than dwelled upon – and have just as much emotional impact.)

The closing part of the novel is slightly weak. There aren’t that many potential suspects and the identity of the killer is clear once one of the two obvious suspects suffers a tragedy and is therefore out of the running. And the traditional “woman in peril” climax went on for too long, though at least its initial circumstances were believable.

My main take on this novel is that it’s jolly good, and I’d recommend it to anyone. I don’t mean to moan on too much about the torture but to me this book is a perfect example of one in which some judicious cutting of a few paragraphs here and there would have made it really stunning and of much more broad appeal.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for my copy of this book, a proof from the publisher, Macmillan.

Other (overwhelmingly positive) reviews of this book can be read at:

Lesa's Book Critiques.

Random Jottings (with a review of The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg).

Bibliophile by the Sea.

Book Addiction.

The Bookbag.

Madhouse Family Reviews.
Author website.