Penelope 'Pepper' Martin is a upper middle class society princess, who doesn't need something as silly as a job. Or rather, she was until her plastic surgeon father is sent to prison for embezzlement and her embarrassed mother promptly leaves the state. To add even more insult to injury her fiance dumps her like a hot potato as a direct result of this, as he doesn't want to marry a common penniless jailbird's daughter [not spoilers, both are on the back cover blurb].
With no family or friends to lean on for support Pepper has to leave her old lifestyle behind and enter the real world. She rents a small apartment and takes the only job she can find - a tour guide at Cleveland's Garden View Cemetery.
But Pepper's life has got a little bit further to fall yet. Literally. Whilst giving a tour one day Pepper takes a tumble and whacks her head on the steps in front of the mausoleum of infamous gangster Gus Scarpetti. Once she returns to work at the cemetery after her tumble she says goodbye to her sanity as she makes the acquaintance of Gus himself.
Gus has spent the thirty years since his unsolved murder waiting for someone to aid him with solving the crime and now he has Pepper firmly in his sight and won't take no as an answer...
I wasn't expecting too much from a story centering around a former pampered princess, who uses her boobs and flirting to get out of tight spots, rather then use her brain. And as for whacking your head and being able to see and communicate with a ghost as a result? Yes, I know that this is termed as 'light fluff' and it's not meant to be realistic and everything, but I was still rolling my eyes before I'd even started DON OF THE DEAD.
This book is in first person so obviously the narrator is the most important character here, with that said lets take a look. Pepper is a former pampered society princess, but she is made likable by the fact that she is fully aware of the fact that she can be shallow and is a bit on the dim side. Still - despite of her self awareness - it did take me a few chapters to warm to her and the author herself doesn't make it easy at times. The biggest example of this is how over the length of the book the author repeatedly informs me that Pepper owns a 38C chest and that men like boobs. Now I'm not trying to brag or anything, but I make her look flat chested and I can attest that [most] men don't go all glazed eyed, drool and/or talk to my cleavage. There's nothing wrong with flirting to get out of a tight spot per say, but when it's repeatedly used as her go-to solution to a problem Pepper starts to come of as a flake.
But as I said it's hard to be dislike someone who displays self awareness and don't forget that she is unfairly paying for other peoples actions. She freely admits to being out of her depth and being frightened; for example the times that she does make a dumb move [e.g. driving into a cul-de-sac whilst being followed] that would usually make me growl in frustration, she will call herself dumb and will simply admit that she panicked. I mean who wouldn't panic and make a rash decision [or two] if they found themselves in the situations she does? I also love that Pepper doesn't stomp her feet and whine on about her father being framed or anything like that; the only one time that she thinks about his incarceration she acknowledges that he is greedy and is paying the price for it.
She doesn't simply hit her head, see Gus and decide to help him move on; the book does display a bit of realism in how Pepper - after a hospital visit and realising that she isn't hallucinating - refuses to get involved in something so dangerous, that she knows nothing about. From here Gus refuses to leave her alone and piles on the guilt, until she is worn down. If I were in her place I'd give in and try to help him solve his murder too, so the author has done a good job in this aspect.
Speaking of Gus; well, there really isn't too much to say. Agustino 'Gus' Scarpetti is a mafia don and proud of it. There are times when he drops the gruff attitude and shows us that he does seem to care about Pepper's well being and safety, but at the end of the day he has told her to do something and she is a woman, so she better had meekly go and do it. His character is surprisingly not on every other page, even though his character is central to the main plot. We know that he isn't tied to the cemetery, but we never learn what he has been doing all of these years - the author really shouldn't have dug that hole and the left it.
Whilst parts of the book are played out for laughs the author has portrayed the mafia - as well as Gus - in a realistic light: sexist murderers and other unpleasantness. The contrast between the hi jinks and ridiculous premise, with the playing-it-straight murder mystery is abrupt and that makes it more shocking, and that in turn leaves a lasting impression. For the most part I found the mystery surrounding Gus's murder to be well done; I worked everything out at the same Pepper laid out all of the clues and pieced everything together. The only negative I have to say is that I thought that the pacing was a bit uneven and the plot did drag a bit in the middle as Pepper works alone for the majority of the story. I'd have liked Gus to be involved a bit more, so Pepper would have had someone to bounce ideas off and keep everything a bit more lively.
DON OF THE DEAD does feature multiple love interests - like every other female lead book series these days. There isn't any romance is this book through, doctor/medical researcher Dan and homicide detective Quinn take back seats to allow central character Pepper to be fleshed out, and to allow the mystery of Gus' death to take centre stage.
By the end of the book I still don't know a lot about them, save that Pepper meets Dan whilst having a check up and Quinn in a crime museum, that is attached to a police station. Oh Yeah - they both are hiding big secrets from her. All I've gathered is that Quinn is a typical alpha male, so I've taken an instant dislike to him.
This is where the author lets herself down; since I don't know a lot about them, I'm not particularly bothered by the promise of learning either of their Big Secrets in future books.
I did enjoy DON OF THE DEAD, despite the fact that the central character took a little while to grow on me and the murder mystery dragged a bit during the middle. Whilst there is definite room for improvement, there is also a lot of potential.