Book: Death and Douglas
Author: J. W. Ocker
Age Range: 8-12
Death and Douglas by J. W. Ocker is a well-written middle grade murder mystery full of both atmosphere and black humor. Douglas, the protagonist, lives with his parents in the family mortuary. When a serial killer strikes his small town, Douglas and two friends (one the son of the local police chief) take it upon themselves to investigate. Naturally, they get a bit more than they bargained for.
Douglas is an unusual character. He wears suits and neckties most of the time. He attends funerals partly to help, but mostly as a hobby. His favorite place to hang out is the local graveyard, where the two gravediggers call him Spadeful. The gravediggers regale him with tales of monsters and vampires, which the impressionable Douglas at least partially believes. Douglas, raised in a funeral home, understands that death is a natural outcome of life. However, he finds murder, the deliberate causing of death, shocking.
There's a mix of introspection (about the nature of murder, about whether Douglas wants to grow up to continue the family business, etc.) and action (sneaking out of the house at midnight, venturing down into the mortuary workroom to look for clues, etc.) in Death and Douglas. The stories from the gravediggers and the general atmosphere of the book made me wonder for a time if Death and Douglas was a fantasy, but it stays just to the reality side of the line. But it's certainly on the over the top side.
What made Death and Douglas stand out for me was Ocker's writing. I could select practically any page to give you an example of a deft description or surprising insight. I stopped highlighting about 1/4 of the way through the book. Here are a couple of examples:
"A small black crow of a boy leaned against the roof of a dead man. The boy's features, where they were black, were extremely black, and where they were pale, extremely pale. A carefully combed slick of thick black hair defined his northern border, three parallel off-shoots of which angled across his forehead like they had been gouged there by the claw of a cat." (Page 1)
"Around him, Cowlmouth was starting to kindle its autumn fires. It was still early September, and only a few impatient trees lifted a red- or yellow-flaming torch in the midst of their mostly green branches. In another few weeks, every birch, every elm, and every oak would be in full five-alarm conflagration before finally fading to brown and being buried under snow for the winter." (Page 16)
"Murder, that was different. Murder was a puzzle to be solved in stories. A word to be ignored on the boring newscasts his father like to watch. Murder was an adult word. A coffee-drinker's word. The type archaically printed in newspapers. It didn't have a meaning in real life. Not in Douglas's real life, anyway. Not in Douglas's Cowlmouth." (Page 42)
"Coffee-drinkers" is used throughout the book to refer to adults. "What the hockey sticks" is used, by Douglas's best friend Lowell, instead of "What the hell." There's just enough insider-jargon to make readers feel like they are part of the little group that consists of Douglas, Lowell, and new friend Audrey. It's a fun book to read, in terms of writing and characters. Cowlmouth is practically a character, too, a quirky small town with a big carnival, a place where residents go all out for Halloween. You get the sense as a reader that the author put in a considerable amount of time thinking about the setting and characters before writing the book.
Although Death and Douglas is written in such a way to be accessible to younger readers (Amazon lists it for 8 and up, and I don't disagree), I wouldn't give this to a particularly sensitive, nightmare-prone child. There are real murders that take place, and kids in peril. For most kids, I think that the book is over-the-top enough to not feel real, and thus not feel too scary. For me, it was an enjoyable read, well-written and memorable. Recommended!
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Publication Date: October 31, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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