I have lived almost my entire life in proximity (within an hour or less, generally) of Amish communities, with some infrequent interaction. While I would have difficulties embracing some of their beliefs and lifestyles, I have always admired their sense of community and stoicism in the face of trouble and disaster. I mention this simply as a disclaimer that I have been predisposed from the beginning to look favorably upon Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series. It is set within a hundred miles or so of my residence (and about a 15-minute drive from my brother’s home) in the fictional town of Painters Mill, located in the very real Holmes County, Ohio, known generally as “Amish Country.”
"HER LAST BREATH rocks. Burkholder’s first person, present-tense narrative causes the pages to simply fly by, which is a good thing, given that you will want to read the entire book in one sitting."
Castillo has captured the flavor of the local flora and fauna very well throughout the series, but what has kept me coming back is the character development. Burkholder was raised in the Amish ways in Painters Mill but chose to leave the community and live among “the English”; she is now the Chief of Police of Painters Mill, a job that brings her into a frequently uneasy contact with family and former friends who now shun her. The series has been terrific from the beginning, but takes a quantum leap forward with the latest book in the canon, one of this summer’s must-reads.
HER LAST BREATH begins moments before an Amish father and his three children are the victims of a hit-and-run accident. The immediate aftermath is set forth in some of the most poignant passages I have read this year. The images of the dead and injured children are not particularly graphic (though descriptive enough) but will stay with you. The incident is particularly emotional for Burkholder, given that the victims are the husband and children of Mattie Borntrager, her best friend during her girlhood. Worse, the subsequent investigation indicates that the tragic incident was not an accident but a deliberate act. Burkholder and her officers take a thread and follow it, but seemingly hit a dead end. An anonymous report from the Amish community seems to be no more than gossip, but takes Burkholder in a direction that she never otherwise would have imagined before her investigation is completed.
Meanwhile, Burkholder's investigation and grief over her former best friend’s loss are complicated by two other matters. The first is a ticking time bomb in Burkholder's life that suddenly explodes. Some 17 years before, Burkholder shot and killed a man named Daniel Lapp, who had raped her. Her family hid the body and kept the secret of what happened. When Lapp’s remains are discovered after these many years, the investigation that she had so long feared would happen begins. The second involves her relationship with John Tomasetti, a state law enforcement officer who she met in the line of duty and has slowly but steadily become a part of her life. Their relationship takes a couple of new turns, even as Tomasetti, who knows Burkholder's secret, puts his career on the line during the course of the investigation into Lapp’s newly discovered death. Both of these elements will no doubt result in repercussions in future installments of the series.
HER LAST BREATH rocks. Burkholder’s first-person, present-tense narrative causes the pages to simply fly by, which is a good thing, given that you will want to read the entire book in one sitting. Whether you have read the first four in the series, or are new to the roads and ways of Holmes County, you will be intrigued, fascinated and captivated by this world.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 21, 2013