Death Falls | Todd Ritter | 2015 | Avon | 336p | Review copy| Buy the book
On 20 July 1969 one of the most memorable events of modern history took place, Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first step on the Moon. But for the Olmsteads, a family living in the quiet Pennsylvania town of Perry Hollow, this was to be a day they’d remember for the worst of reasons. Young Charlie Olmstead, a child caught up in the thrill of the landings, went out into the street as if there he could spot the tiny figures landing on the Moon with his own eyes. He never returned home. His bicycle was found washed over a nearby waterfall, his body was never found but was presumed taken by the fierce flow of water. But gone is not forgotten. Charlie’s mother Maggie never gave up hope that she would see him again. But forty years on she died, her hopes unmet.
Maggie’s other son Eric, a famous crime fiction author who was a babe in arms at the time of Charlie’s disappearance, arrives to bury his mother. Hidden away, he finds decades of research, all of the clues that Maggie uncovered over the years, all of it suggesting that Charlie was not a lone case, that more young boys disappeared without trace. Eric is determined to finish what his mother started, to find out what really happened to Charlie, helped by Kat Campbell, his former teen sweetheart, who is now the local police chief, just as her father was so long ago on the night that Charlie vanished.
Death Falls is an immensely entertaining piece of crime fiction that succeeds in teasing the brain every bit as much as it raises the blood pressure. The story it tells is packed with puzzles, red herrings and twists so unexpected I didn’t see any of them coming. This is one of those crime thrillers that actually makes the reader (at least this one) gasp out loud as yet another audacious shock jumps out of the page and smacks you round the face. I pride myself on being rather good at working out clues and guessing whodunnit ahead of the big reveal but not a chance here. I was gloriously beaten by Todd Ritter’s really rather incredible plotting abilities.
Aside from the hunt, there are characters here that I really enjoyed getting to know. Kat in particular is an immensely likeable figure, coping with a young son while at the same time trying to hold together a tiny police department with almost no support at all from the local mayor. There’s a history there. There are hints of a previous notorious case involving a serial killer (Death Falls isn’t the first novel, there is its predecessor Death Notice to investigate as soon as possible). Eric, of course, takes Kat further back into her own history and the pain of their lost love colours this novel and makes us sympathetic to both.
Kat and Eric investigate the whole community, helped by Nick Donnelly, once a cop but shabbily discharged when injured and now making a dangerous living by privately investigating cold crimes. The people that they meet help bring this small town to life, as it was forty-odd years ago in 1969 and as it is now. This sense of past is increased by the direction in which the investigations take Kat, Eric and Nick.
Linking Charlie’s disappearance to such a key event as the Moon landings works extremely successfully, capturing my curiosity immediately, setting the mood for the novel from the very beginning. Secrets are everywhere, clues are hidden in the most surprising of places, and truths are difficult to accept. I was riveted by Death Falls, loving its twists and caring for its characters, living and dead, and its climax lived up entirely to all that had gone before. Excellent!