First off, these books were brought to my attention by my good book-blogging buddy Stephanie. The links in the titles above actually go to her reviews of these books, so you should definitely check out her thoughts!!
It’s been a while since I just sat down and immersed myself in a series (especially a mystery series), but I am so glad that I did that with these books! I really enjoyed these mysteries a lot, and I’m excited because it appears that Castillo is still adding to the series, with #11 scheduled for publication this summer.
Part of the pleasure in these books for me is their setting – right here in Ohio. The protagonist, Kate Burkholder, is the chief of police in a small town in Amish country (i.e. northeastern-ish Ohio). Kate was born and raised Amish, but left the community at the age of 18. Through a series of life events, she joined law enforcement, and a decade or so after she left, finds herself back in Painters Mill. Her unique background means that she can often work as a sort of bridge between the Amish and non-Amish (aka “English”) communities, as she is familiar with the Amish culture and also speaks Pennsylvania Dutch.
Kate is overall a likable person, which is a big part of why this series works. At the beginning, I was afraid she was going to turn into one of those dark, tortured souls who is drunk all the time and on a path to self-destruction. Instead, Castillo decides to put Kate on a path of progress – throughout the books she is able to face various demons from her past, becoming stronger and growing as a person.
Part of this is Kate’s romantic interest, John Tomasetti. If I’m honest, Tomasetti was one of the reasons I enjoyed the series so much. He also comes from a troubled and tragic past, but overall is levelheaded, intelligent, and logical. I really appreciated that Castillo didn’t feel like she had to give Kate a dumbed-down boyfriend in order to make Kate look good. Instead, Kate and Tomasetti make a great team, bouncing ideas and theories off of each other, respecting the other’s thoughts and opinions, and providing each other with challenges to grow.
The mysteries themselves are, for the most part, well done. There were a few times where I felt like Castillo got a little carried away (the reason Breaking Silence only got 3* was because, in my opinion, Castillo went one twist too far – instead of the solution that was logical, she tried to make it the conclusion that was !!!! and I just couldn’t get behind her reasoning for why the !!!! solution made sense), but overall she keeps things within the bounds of reason.
Throughout, Castillo’s descriptions of the Amish community feel respectful. She neither demonizes or deifies them. Instead, there is admiration for their strengths (strong families and communities, willingness to help and protect one another, joy in a simple life, etc.) and gentle criticism for their weaknesses (unwillingness to work with outsiders, tendency to judgmentalness, pacifism even to the detriment of justice, etc.).
I especially appreciated times when Kate recognized that her young, rebellious self may have been hard on the people in the community she was determined to leave behind. This particularly happens with her relationship with the local Amish community’s bishop. Kate acknowledges that when she was young she just saw him as a bossy, grumpy, judgmental old man. Now, as an adult, she recognizes the fact that he has the best interests of his flock at heart, and works hard to keep his community safe and cared for, even at great personal sacrifice.
Kate also is able to see that while there are aspects of her former community that she doesn’t necessarily agree with, that they are still important tenets to the Amish, and are worthy of respect as a part of their personal faith. That’s not to say that I always agreed with Kate. If I’m honest, my faith probably more closely mirrors the Amish than Kate, who no longer claims any faith at all, and there are times that she only sees judgment from people where I can see that they are coming from a place of love. A big example is when she and Tomasetti start living together. Kate is offended that her brother and sister (still Amish) don’t agree with that, while I (an individual who still old-fashioned-ly doesn’t believe in cohabitation before marriage) see that her brother and sister are concerned for her and want the best for her.
In a weird way, Kate’s relationship with Tomasetti was an example of why I don’t think sleeping/living together outside of marriage is the path of wisdom. Throughout, they are frequently on uncertain footing regarding how the other person feels, constantly questioning and confused with no clear boundaries or goals. While I really loved the two of them together, they also drove me crazy sometimes, especially Kate (since we’re in her head the most), whose constant waffling and utterly ridiculous refusal to have basic conversations with Tomasetti (even when he was ready and trying to have them) drove me honestly crazy. Another of the 3* reads (After the Storm) was actually a perfectly good mystery (although also possessed an unnecessary twist), but Kate’s behavior towards Tomasetti in that book got on my nerves so much that I couldn’t honestly rank it any higher. She does things like literally sits in her office at work for hours instead of going home because she’s afraid to talk with him?! They’re at a major crossroads of their relationship, and instead of acting like an adult, she hides like a petulant child for basically the entire book, and I just wanted to throttle her.
Besides her inability to have adult conversations, the other big thing about Kate that annoyed me was her obsession with “being strong”, i.e. not crying or showing a lot of emotion. That’s semi-understandable in her role as chief of police, but utterly ridiculous to still feel that way toward Tomasetti when they’ve been in a serious relationship for literal years. A true relationship with mutual trust involves emotional openness, and I just didn’t feel like Kate was there, which was fine for the first couple of books, but annoying that by book #10 she’s still thinking about how embarrassed she is that Tomasetti is seeing her cry. Hello? Sometimes in life things happen that make you cry, and actually one of the awesome parts about having a good relationship is that you have someone there for you when you are crying who doesn’t belittle your feelings or blow them off. Tomasetti is amazingly supportive of Kate all the time, so her persistent and purposeful lack of emotional vulnerability just got annoying.
If there was another thing about the series that I would change, it would be to make more of a relationship with Kate and her siblings. I feel like Kate spends a lot of time internally angsting about their lack of a relationship and feeling guilty about it… and then still never reaching out to them or visiting them. It goes back to that whole thing where, with personal issues, Kate all too frequently just pretends they aren’t there, but still feels really guilty about them, and sometimes I get extremely tired of listening to her whine about them instead of just DOING what needs to be done.
On the other hand, there is so much about Kate to like. She’s an incredibly hard worker, she’s brilliant at her work, she’s funny, she’s a great boss, she’s intelligent, she’s good at recognizing her own weaknesses, and she has a real heart and love for the people in her community. These books are mostly from Kate’s first-person perspective, and I enjoyed spending time with her and her thoughts. (Although I will say that it really low-grade aggravated me that Kate’s parts are always present tense, but all third person perspectives were past tense. It just didn’t make sense and made everything read weird to me.)
While the series has its ups and downs, overall I would give it 4*, because I feel like Castillo is really getting into a groove. It had been a long time since a book made me literally pace the floor while reading it, but I was so stressed when reading Gone Missing that that is exactly what I did! The last three books thus far were my favorites from the whole series, and so far I feel like there is still so much for Castillo to explore. I really appreciate the way that even her secondary (and third-ary lol) characters also change through time. I’m genuinely in love with the other members of Kate’s small police force (especially Glock).
If you enjoy mysteries that are a little more intense than cozies, but aren’t full of graphic sex and violence (although there is a bit of swearing), then I would definitely recommend these. Personally, I can’t wait for the next one to appear!!