Blood and Innards

A mystery series set in Amish country and featuring a female lapsed-Amish police chief has a lot going for it. A crime taking place in and around this closed community is automatically charged an air of the forbidden. A woman, in this case Kate Burkholder, who leaves a male-dominated culture only to re-enter it in a position of power presents a fascinating set up too. Add to this a writer, Castillo, who can actually write and you have a recipe for success.

Why only 3 stars?

There are a few significant drawbacks for me. The first is that this is not a mystery; it's a thriller. It's not that it's so terribly obvious, it's that Burkholder has a suspect early on and she's right. Then there is the grotesque nature of the crime. Want to read about the murder of an entire Amish family and the sexual torture of their two daughters? Me neither. Castillo doesn't exploit the material she's just too painstakingly detailed for my taste. Finally there's the incredibly weighty back stories of Burkholder and her love interest - more stomach-churning violence - and the fact that the first book of this series had the two investigating a serial murderer. People have moved for far less provocation but these two are hanging around at the scene of multiple crimes. 

Of course, that's challenge of any mystery series. (Who in their right mind would invite Miss Marple over for tea?) But it's an awful lot for book two. 

Castillo makes a few bold choices -  Burkholder's sections are all told in the present tense, all other characters in the past tense - that would fall apart in the hands of a less talented writer. They aren't all successful but Castillo sets a fast pace for the book so that even missteps aren't very noticeable.

For thriller fans who don't mind or enjoy a gory murder, Pray for Silence is worth checking out.

Anatomy of a Scandal

Once upon a time, the Chandra Levy case was the most important news story in the United States. Ok, not exactly important more highly covered. Why? Well, she was white, missing and middle class, and she was having an affair with a congressman. Naturally this made things like war, famine and pandemics fell by the wayside in the land of cable news. Something very much like hysteria was building around the Levy-Condit case and then 9/11 happened. Now reporters Shari Horwitz and Scott Higham have gone back, nine years later, to sort out the fact from the tabloid fiction. What they have written is less true crime and more social commentary. They examine the case itself but they also examine the media coverage of it, and how the media coverage impacted the investigation.

The result is excellent reporting and good writing. Higham and Horwitz know how to bring individuals to life without resorting to extensive inventories of closets. They also don't fall into the "this story was SO hard to report" cliches. They even manage to humanize Gary Condit. He's no more likable at the end of the book than he was before but his actions seems much less sinister though still remarkably bone-headed. The most fascinating aspect is how quickly law enforcement fell under the sway of the media coverage. If Rita Cosby reported something, the police had to follow up.

There remains the issue of whether the Chandra Levy case received disproportionate media coverage and even police attention because she was white and middle class. Well, of course it received more media coverage. Her family was able to work the system and was able to afford advice to help them better work the system. Bully for them. If my child was missing I'd do everything I could to get whatever help I could. Was the media wrong for following up on a story that was dropped into their laps? Not in my opinion.
It is wrong that so many missing non-middle class and/or non-whites don't receive similar attention from the media. But then who really believes that CNN/MSNBC/FOX etc cover these stories as news and not entertainment? Coverage goes to those who have the time, money and connections to scream loudest.
I also found it entertaining that the Washington Post's own readers ombudsman was disgruntled that the series was too long. I guess she was hoping they'd just send a few Tweets and be done with it. Shouldn't the ombudsman at least support the idea of in depth reporting? The concept of the press as a public trust has evaporated before our eyes.

Highly recommended for true crime readers.