DEAD WOOD by Dan Ames is the first book in The John Rockne Mysteries. It’s fast-paced thriller with unique characters and an intriguing storyline. John Rockne is the protagonist and he’s a bit of a knuckle-head. The “head” thing will come into play a little further down in this review, so keep it in mind.
The story opens up with a bang. You know how in some movies, you’re screaming at the idiot not to go into the basement to investigate that noise? Well, you’ll find yourself doing this to your kindle, but the glassy screen will ignore your warning at which time you’ll begin pounding the pillow beside you, beating it the way you would like to beat Rockne, all to keep him from doing something really, really stupid. But does anyone listen to a mere reader? No. And it’s because we’re ignored, that he goes from being a cop to a private detective.
The case he takes on is a good one. Jesse Barre is murdered while in her workshop building a guitar. She uses rare salvaged wood that her boyfriend just happens to dredge up from the bottom of the Lake Michigan. Her death is a tragedy to be sure, but her passing is not destined to be ignored. Not when her father is Clarence Barre, ”the” Clarence Barre … the famous country western singer. The family ties ensure that Poppa Bear will not rest until he finds out who killed his daughter, and so, he hires Mr. Rockne to find out who dunnit and why.
The connection to the music industry makes for interesting reading and lets the story flow into some pretty unexpected directions. What also helps is Rockne’s family dynamics. You see, like the old country song, “Little sis don’t miss when she aims her gun," and his sister shouldn’t be taken too lightly, either. Why? Well, because his sister is Grosse Pointe's Chief of Police, that’s why. But it’s not easy to have a sister who’s an overachiever, especially when you like doing things the hard way, and it’s right here I’d like to return to that “head” thing.
My problem with the book is that Rockne doesn’t seem to use his head for what it’s intended for which is thinking. Instead he uses it to block punches (not soccer balls), take beatings, have it battered into concrete, and catch bullets and knives. I have a problem with this style of writing because at some point, it pulls you out of the story. No one, except those with superhuman powers, can recover that quickly from all the physical damage … NO ONE. Then there’s the problem that when Rockne springs out of bed the next day, no one even questions that he’s been bashed repeatedly in the face. Wouldn’t someone notice? Wouldn’t his physicality be impaired? Apparently not. Of course, the other problem is the way Ames constructed this character. There’s a hapless, Charlie Chaplinesque quality to him. It imbues the scenes where Rockne is taking what should be a lethal dose of punishment so much so that we find ourselves taking a certain perverse pleasure in this slightly obtuse detective getting his brains bashed in. Should we be enjoying it that thoroughly? Probably not. But it’s all due to Ames’ skill as a writer and so it became tantamount to a guilty pleasure for a large part of this novel.
The above is my only real criticism. Other than that, I found the story, characters, plotline all engaging. It’s a superlative read and one I can and do recommend. And I will be reading Mr. Ames again and following this series. The approach was refreshing and think DEAD WOOD is altogether a great read. Oh, and before I forget, that opening chapter … in between the concussions, Mr. Rockne does realize the huge mistake he made and is obliged to fix it. It makes for a compelling underlying storyline that I suspect will continue the length of this series.
Because of all of the above, I’m giving DEAD WOOD by Dan Ames 4.2.