Audiobook Title: ’til Death – Book 1 in the Rockwell Return Files series
Author: Jason Anspach
Publication Date: October 23, 2018
Available on: Amazon as an audiobook, an eBook and a paperback. The audiobook is also available digitally at all online audiobook retailers.
Indie Athenaeum Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Sam Rockwell is a private detective who specializes in Returns, people who die and come back as a ghost that is virtually indistinguishable from a living human being. Except for the fact they are intangible, of course. Running a detective agency that isn’t doing well financially, along with his lack of experience as a detective, he is accompanied by his gal Friday, Amelia. But when Sam’s father Frank is murdered and becomes a Return, Sam is on the case! Who committed the murder and why?
It’s a serious mystery novel that demands your attention but stylishly mixes in comedy in equal doses as well. The mystery plot is easy to follow yet not at all predictable as Sam and Amelia follow the clues leading to his father’s murderer. It doesn’t hurt that Frank is along to help them… but it doesn’t always help either, as Frank is a stubborn man who isn’t taking well to his new Return status.
From seedy dive bars to the hidden Communist cells trying to attain government secrets, the plot twists and turns in delightful and dark ways. Sam is constantly put in danger so it’s a good thing he is a war veteran who knows how to fight because he’ll need all that knowledge to fight off the Russians who will do anything to achieve their objective.
You might not see the comedy potential in such a novel. But amidst the seriousness of the mystery, there is much comedy to be found. Sam tries to make himself look like a hard-boiled detective from like those from the noir novels he reads. He believes it helps him project an air of confidence to his clientele. So, he lowers a voice and takes on a tougher exterior, acting like something he’s not. This adds comedy and lightness to some of the proceedings as it causes Sam to get into some interesting predicaments and funny misunderstandings too.
The supernatural elements also play an important role here, as the mystery of Returns is given plenty of detail as well. Returns are here on Earth to resolve something from their previous life and gain closure before going to heaven. The wondrousness of such a concept is a common enough element in this universe so people are used to it by now. But the details of how it works is unknown to the general populace.
The inner workings of the Pearly Gates are given plenty of attention as well, with more comedy to be mined from the idea. It is especially interesting to see how Returns interact with their environment while on Earth and even with their loved ones; all of this makes for extremely good situational comedy.
This is especially apparent in the banter between characters is also delightful, with witty dialogue that sparkles and feels genuine. So much so, reading about Frank interacting with his wife and his son as a Return is one of the many highlights of this novel. Sam and Amelia, as well as Frank and Alice, have a repartee that makes this novel so enjoyable to read, I feel like I’ve time traveled to the past and am not only walking in these characters shoes but also am living with them.
Now, take this unusual combination of genres and add in some well-rounded characters filled with strong motivations and sparkling personality. Sam and Frank are given plenty of background and feel like real people. Stories like this have the potential to just be stereotypical people inhabiting a time period but these characters are so rich and feel like people you know. Alice’s empowerment by her newfound status as a widow and Amelia’s motivations for wanting to work with Returns are also developments I didn’t expect but was highly appreciative of.
Frank is also a wily guy. As a successful business owner, Frank is intelligent and clever enough to talk himself into and out of many situations but still demonstrates growth as a human being despite his status as a Return. It harkens back to a simpler time period than the one we currently live in, creating a sense of nostalgia and comfort. It also adroitly integrates its post-World War II time period and the Red Scare movement that dominated those years into its plot.
Having read the author’s military sci-fi novels from the “Galaxy’s Edge” series he co-writes with Nick Cole, it’s easy to see the author’s strengths here. Although he wrote the “‘til Death” trilogy before he wrote the Galaxy’s Edge novels, those strengths become more apparent after reading books in both series. The author devoted attention to detail and research make the story deeply authentic for the time period, complete with pop culture references (like Clark Gable) and atmospheric details that flesh out the time period and bring it to life. You’ll read culturally authentic things like the role of a husband as a breadwinner and a wife as a homemaker, the foods cooked (like pot roast), the clothing the characters wear, rotary dial phones and much more. The culture of the time period is given much loving attention and really serves as a perfect time capsule back to those halcyon years.
The audiobook narrator is perfect for the material here. He can deftly navigate the gruffness of Sam pretending to be a tough guy, the persnickety nature of Frank, his wife Alice and intelligence of Amelia. There are other multiple characters here and the narrator voices all of them distinctly and perfectly. All the characters are individually voiced and unique to me, easy to tell one apart from one another when interacting. He also infuses additional detail into the narration, conveying emotions like anger, sadness, tension and more, pulling from the novel and giving it an additional layer of depth to it that really makes the narration feel extremely lively.
This novel is both an intriguing mystery and a gentle comedy with an earnestness that made me want to know more while also creating a sweet sense of nostalgia. I found it to be enchanting and compelling novel with a unique mystery/comedy genre mash-up and ultimately a very satisfying novel. I look forward to reading the other two books in the “’til Death” trilogy.
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