‘Til Death: A Sam Rockwell Returns Mystery

Wednesday , 12, July 2017 4 Comments

The copyright on this book says 2015, but I have my doubts.  My theory is that the author opened up a wormhole, reached through, and pulled this book from the slushpile of a 1950’s publishing house.  The tone and tenor of this book would not be out of place sandwiched between the covers of a 1950 issue of Fantastic Stories.  This book is a classic case study in what it means to “regress harder”, and an example of the high quality of writing that results when an author heeds that motto.

Jason Anspach’s ‘Til Death tells the tale of Sam Rockwell, an LA private dick who returns home to Washington to investigate the murder of his own father. You might think having his father lingering around as a ghost would make things easy, but you’ve never met Sam’s father. Shot in the back during a late evening at the office, Frank Rockwell takes a detour at the Pearly Gates and convinces the Return department that allowing him to return home despite his recent demise would go a long ways towards preventing World War III.

The book is set in the mid-1950s and features just the sort of characters one would expect. A dutiful wife and her stolid and predictable businessman husband. An austere preacher. A demure love interest. A naïve but earnest private investigator. This book diverges from contemporary novels set in the 1950s in that every single one of those characters is sympathetic. There isn’t a caricature in the lot. They may have their foibles and their quirks and their misunderstandings, and some take a little longer to grow on you than others, but without exception these major players are eminently decent and likable people.

The dutiful wife is not abused, and accepts the routine of her life with a warm contentment rather than an cold bitterness. The stolid husband might place too much emphasis on duty and not enough on love, but that doesn’t mean his heart has no room for love. The demure love interest might be driven primarily by a desire for marriage and a family, but she has other interests and motivations as well, and her secondary concerns are not presented as a weakness. Anspach even presents the austere bible thumper’s antics as not only effective, but also driven by the man’s actual belief in God, redemption, and forgiveness.

Rooted firmly in a Christian worldview – although one whose central conceit takes a few liberties with the traditional afterlife – ‘Til Death is a book that would have been unpublishable even twenty years ago. That Anspach self-published this book is no surprise, as the family focus and the spoken and unspoken Christian conventions that underlie the narrative are like garlic to the vampires who operate the major publishing houses today.

And don’t get me started on the novelty of presenting Communist agents as buffoonish and worthy of scorn. In a time when 1950s anti-Communist demonstrators are presented as villains in major Hollywood releases, Anspach’s decision to include a pair of menacing yet comical Russian agents cuts hard against the modern grain.

Equally impressive is Anspach’s use of the rules of the Returned – those recently deceased ghosts who come back to earth to complete some unfinished business. Anspach mentions a history of this world where ghosts began returning to the world during the American Civil War, but whose numbers really picked up during the Second World War. He establishes the ground rules for Returned – what they can do, how long they stay, the conditions under which they stay – that reaches beyond this life and into the next one. A few critical scenes showcase the bureaucracy of the afterlife, and explain exactly how much influence the angels who work there have over the living world. Once put in place, Anspach sticks to them. This book doesn’t break the rules, and actually uses them to good effect in a number of ways to ratchet up the tension even further.

Unlike most modern authors, Anspach also has the good sense to quit while the quitting is good.  Clocking in at just over 250 pages, ‘Til Death packs in multiple mysteries, several plot twists, two romantic subplots, a hostage situation, and several very well done fist fights.  That’s a lot of material, but the book doesn’t feel at all forced or padded.  It’s refreshing to read an author who doesn’t feel the need to pack an extra 50 pages into his novel.  That ‘Til Death is as long as it needs to be is a strength that adds far more enjoyment to the experience than another 50 pages of useless detail and sub-plotting could have.

‘Til Death reads like a 1950s Hollywood noir movie in all of the best ways. The tone of the thing is note perfect. Anspach nails the feel of a decidedly g-rated noir complete with a (sometimes) gravel voiced PI, an angry and vengeful cop, the strong contrast between the skanky villainess and the noble ingénue, and all of the quirks of 1950s technology. The violence inherit in this sort of tale is presented with a simple efficiency that is effective without plunging over the line into becoming sordid or gratuitous. The sexual tension between the hero and his gal is subsumed by the need for a proper wedding first, and the drama doesn’t suffer for that one jot. The clean language, the hopeful tone, the raw love of the idyllic Americana presented here combine to make this murder mystery a genuine throwback of the best kind.

‘Til Death is available in electronic and paperback versions though Amazon.com.


  • Xavier Basora says:

    Thanks for the review. Sound like a fun book. Another nice novel that’s noir light is the David Woods dectitive agency series.

    I hope that other writers regress harder and produce some fun and enjoyable dectective/noir novel.

    Out of curiosity are there other Sam Rockwell novels?


    • Terry Sanders says:

      TIL DEATH: SECOND IMPRESSIONS is a sequel, with even more shamelessly bad-guy communists and an even more harrassed bureaucrat-angel*, among other things. Our hero is on retainer with the Heavenly Bureau of Returns, doing odd ghost cases for the angels. And they do get odd.

      *Same angel, more bureaucratic tribulations.

  • Andy says:

    “And don’t get me started on the novelty of presenting Communist agents as buffoonish and worthy of scorn. In a time when 1950s anti-Communist demonstrators are presented as villains in major Hollywood releases, Anspach’s decision to include a pair of menacing yet comical Russian agents cuts hard against the modern grain.”

    Ha, this reminds me of the Coen brothers’ Hail Caesar, which I recently watched. One of the only movies I’ve ever seen that’s honest about the extent of communist activity in Hollywood. If it wasn’t the Coens, I doubt it would have been made at all.

  • Viktor says:

    I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. “g rated noir” just about nails it. I liked it so much I bought the sequal. It’s on the tbr pile on my Kindle.

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