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BOOK REVIEW Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Malic White

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On the idyllic coast of Casco, Maine, where there is always clam chowder and huckleberry pie, murder strikes.

Chicago author E.R. Beecher's novella Casco weaves suspense into a coming-of-age story about rebuilding family and holding onto painful memories until new discoveries yield justice.

Casco opens with the brutal murder of a gay man in the 1960s. In this lurid appropriation of the Matthew Shepard story, two homophobic bullies beat their victim and string him up in a clock tower to "show him what happens to faggots."

Then Beecher backtracks to 1959, when Casco's narrator, the then-9-year-old Gordon, travels to the book's namesake town in Maine to spend the summer with his new stepbrother and grandmother. Casco takes a surprisingly cheerful turn as Gordon recounts the everyday happenings of that first summer on the coast and every summer thereafter—sailing lessons, apple pie, long evenings on the porch and treasure hunts.

Despite the dead-end vignettes that have little to do with the overarching narrative, this section provides satisfying escapism into the carefree days of childhood. Gordon develops an endearing relationship with his grandmother, who takes him out to "old lady" restaurants and parties, and palls around with his grandmother's lifelong maid, who fills Gordon's head with stories and his belly with pie. But on this pleasant romp through Gordon's summer memories, the murder from the book's prologue remains firmly planted in the reader's mind.

As Gordon grows up, he models himself after his older stepbrother, Richard, a charming, teenage sailing instructor. Gordon hones his own sailing skills and even goes to Richard's barber shop for a matching haircut. But when Gordon discovers his stepbrother in bed with another man, the plot takes the dark turn the reader has been waiting for. Gordon easily accepts his stepbrother's same-sex leanings, but when he finds the body of the gay man murder in the prologue, he worries that Richard might be next.

While most coming-of-age stories feature the inner struggles of adolescence, Casco hardly contains any internal dialogue. Beecher rarely ventures out of his straightforward prose to provide description of the landscape or characters, washing out characters who have potential to be memorable.

In Part II, Gordon returns to Maine as an adult long after his grandmother and stepbrother have died and discovers Richard's diary from his adolescent years. The diary entries that compose the second half of the novella could have provided the emotional insight that Casco sorely lacks, but Part II merely rehashes the previous section, sometimes word for word.

Richard's diary entries are written clumsily in third-person, drawing an uncertain line between Richard's own words and Gordon's interpretation.

Armed with a few additional details from Richard's diaries, the adult Gordon tries to solve the murder that haunted his childhood. His sleuthing uncovers details that shed new light on another death, and Gordon finds himself seeking closure all over again.

Part III revives the suspenseful pace from the prologue, although the final scene ties the narrative's loose ends a little too neatly. Casco is less a thriller than it is an unwieldy, though heartfelt, meditation on growing up, uncovering family secrets and deciding which mysteries are better left untouched.

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