Those words, the last uttered by a young Pennsylvania woman accused of witchcraft and killed in 1692, seem to have come back to haunt the current residents of Perry Hollow, Pennsylvania, when Police Chief Kat Campbell is roused from her fitful sleep in the wee hours of Devil’s Night by the sound of sirens…a lot of them.
As she responds to what turns out to be a fire raging through Perry Hollow’s Historical Society and Exhibition Hall, Campbell can’t help but be reminded that Halloween marks the one year anniversary of the town’s last major fire, the burning of the old mill during the Grim Reaper investigation (Death Notice)–a fire she and Perry Hollow Gazette journalist Henry Goll were lucky to escape with their lives.
Once the fire is extinguished, it’s a rather quick job of determining arson as the cause. Complicating matters immensely are the two sets of human remains found in the smoldering building. One is obviously that of the Historical Society’s curator, Constance Bishop, though she appears to have been bludgeoned rather than burned. The other is a tidy pile of bones contained in a burlap sack, identity unknown. Even more ominous than the remains, however, is the message Campbell finds scrawled on one of Bishop’s hands: This is just the first.
When the town’s sole hotel, the Sleepy Hollow Inn, goes up in flames mere hours later, Campbell is presented with the disturbing question of whether the message on Bishop’s hand referred to the Historical Society fire merely being the first fire, or whether there are more bodies to come as well. And though she has far more experience dealing with big-time crime than she ever expected, Chief Campbell is still far from a bad-ass, veteran investigator. She’s more than happy, and smart enough, to accept help wherever she can find it, be that from the State Police, the FBI, or old friend, Henry Goll.
After an absence from Perry Hollow during the second book in the series, Bad Moon, it was great to have Henry return from his self-exile in Italy for this outing. Having fled town in the wake of the Grim Reaper killings to recuperate from the injuries he received, both physical and psychological, Goll is back to investigate why a wealthy Italian businessman has recently purchased a huge tract of land in Perry Hollow. Goll and Campbell team up to follow leads, which run the gamut from one of the town’s volunteer firefighters to the local priest to a self-professed witch, himself in town investigating the story of a young woman allegedly killed for being a witch back in 1692 in what is now Perry Hollow.
As he did in the first two installments of the series, author Todd Ritter once again nails the atmosphere of a small, rural town in crisis. In a setting where everyone pretty much knows everyone, at least by sight if not personally, it makes for an especially tense situation as neighbors begin casting suspicious eyes at one another in their search for the culprit. Ritter ratchets up the tension even further by having the events unfold during a single twenty-four hour period, not giving either the characters or the reader a chance to catch their breath as he fires clues and events at them non-stop.
The incorporation of some witch lore and history is done seamlessly, enriching what is an already bewitching tale of mischief and murder. Ritter also cleverly parallels the hysteria and mob mentality that took place during the witch trial era with the budding sense of same that spreads through Perry Hollow on Devil’s Night and Halloween as the residents see their town going up in flames.
Kat Campbell proves once again to be a refreshingly balanced female lead character. Though more than competent at her job as Chief of Police, she’s not Superwoman and doesn’t profess to have all the answers. And while she’s not foolhardy, she’s also no coward, willing to follow leads wherever they take her, even if that’s into the path of danger. The matter-of-fact inclusion of the fact she’s a single mother raising a son with Down syndrome only further humanizes and grounds her, and is done so skillfully by Ritter that it never once comes across as superfluous or gimmicky.
The Kat Campbell mystery series charged out the gates strongly with the first entry, and has only gotten better with each additional outing. You don’t have to have read the first two to enjoy Devil’s Night, so feel free to jump in with this one if you’re new to the series. Or do what you’ll end up doing anyway I assure you, just go ahead and order all three, then settle in for a long weekend of getting to know Kat, Henry and the town of Perry Hollow. It’s a crazy place that sees more than its share of adventure, but one you’ll enjoy visiting.
Devil’s Night is available from St. Martin’s/Minotaur (ISBN: 978-1250028532).