Caught Dead: A Dean Constable Mystery, by Jayne E. Self (Serialized in the Presbyterian Record, 2010)
After 16 years in Buffalo, Dean Constable has returned to the town of Lynngate, New York, to help his brother care for their aging father and to serve in his first pastorate. He’s still settling in when his long-time friend Justin is killed in a car accident.
A former police officer, Dean is determined to leave investigating to the experts—until Justin’s sister Paige pleads for his help. And until he sees signs of an official cover-up.
The story takes place just after Christmas, and Dean has charge of his father, Tony, for the holidays. As well as finding the truth about Justin’s death, Dean must prove himself to his parishioners, his father, and himself.
The mystery is well done, with hints and clues and complications, and the characters have a depth that drew me into the story. Not only did I want to see what happened, I cared about the people it was happening to.
Jayne Self knows churches and small towns. She gives us the usual background characters: the busybody neighbour, the big shot who wants church run his way, the single church lady with an eye for the new minister. We recognize them, but these aren’t flat stereotypes. Just like real people, they come with surprises.
Even more real and complex are the main players: Dean, Tony, and Paige. Dean’s an adopted son and he’s never felt like he belonged. Paige grew up in her brother’s shadow. Tony is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. These, plus each one’s lifetime of experiences, shape them into believable individuals worth spending time with. In that sense, I was disappointed to reach the end of the book. I’m looking forward to Dean’s next mystery, Hit’N Miss.
Jayne writes with compassion for her characters, and this is especially clear in Dean’s attempts to care for his father. He makes mistakes, but he treats Tony with a gentle dignity. Often we don’t know how to respond to people suffering dementia, and Dean gives us a positive example.
Caught Dead is a mystery complete with poignant moments, humour, and evocative descriptions. Check out this one from the scene of Justin’s crash:
“Crooked headlights shone on a row of weathered monuments. Their narrow shadows pointed toward the church like bony fingers reaching for a second chance at life.” [The police] “strung their yellow tape around the cemetery like a macabre Christmas garland.”
Or Dean, observing wildlife tracks in the woods:
“Signs Dad taught me, familiar bits of creation that spoke to my heart long before I ever recognized the voice of their Creator.”
As a minister, part of Dean’s job is to preach. But the novel isn’t preachy. Dean is an authentic Christian, a fairly recent convert, with strengths and weaknesses. The spiritual element of the novel flows naturally because it’s part of Dean’s story. He’s growing spiritually as well as in other areas of character. What stuck with me was his discovery that he’d been doing well trusting the Head (Jesus) of the church, but not so well trusting the rest of the body (his fellow believers).
Like any good mystery, Caught Dead is hard to put down. It’s currently available online as a weekly serial at the Presbyterian Record. One of the reasons I leapt at the chance to review it is I’d get to read the rest of the novel without the enforced breaks.
Jayne E. Self is a Canadian author whose previous credits include articles and short stories. Caught Dead is her first published novel. It was a finalist in 2009 for The Best New Canadian Christian Author Award (for unpublished work). To learn more about Jayne and her novel, see the Caught Dead book trailer on her website.