Caught in a deadly competition to earn an even deadlier job repairing circus cars on the move, a young Larkin Mills resident casually remarks, “This town is insane”— pretty much summing up Gareth P. Jones’s umpteenth novel, Death or Ice Cream?
Chronicling the morbid history of a seemingly innocent town, Death or Ice Cream? (published in 2016 by David R. Godine) follows several eccentric young locals, or, young locals caught in eccentric predicaments, with a charming irony and devilish sense of humor. For in Larkin Mills the daily norm—from memory erasure to corpse resurrection, shark weaponization to redistribution of health—is anything but mundane.
Just ask the willful young Park, who moves with her archaeologist father into a hotel/funeral parlor and must puzzle out the spooky powers of their most recently excavated treasure. Then there’s the mayor’s son Ivor, who discovers that he has a long-lost aunt. A murderous long-lost aunt Dulwhich who remembers nothing of allegedly killing her husband! (The only evidence of the entire affair seems to be Mr. Dulwhich’s Good as Death Certificate.) And preceding the present eccentrics of Larkin Mills are Larkin and Mills, the ancients whose eternal rivalry gave rise to the town and mystifies its citizens today.
With his matter-of-fact hilarity and delightful self-awareness, Jones presents an irresistible, Wonderland-esque surreality that questions both the fetishism and fear of death. In fact, Gareth has published several children’s books that revel in the morbid, such as fan favorite The Thornwaite Inheritance and its sequel, The Thornwaite Betrayal, that follow a pair of murderous twins who keep trying to kill each other. Explaining his perhaps controversial black-comedy approach to danger and death, Jones writes in his blog,
“…[Books] can guide us through these places in safety…Reading is a comfortable and safe act…It is an art form in which you [the reader] are totally in control. A book empowers its readers. So no, I do not shy away from all the blood and guts stuff. In my experience, those children who have experienced the darker side of life are the ones who really want to—possibly need to—talk about it…[Then] what better way to do this than through a good book?”
I picked Death or Ice Cream? off a shelf of potential summer reads because I wanted a break from my somber usual of classics, horror, and dramatic fiction. The title alone, with its unabashed verve and kookiness, promised a refreshing story. And the first few pages more than upheld that promise. From competitive basket weaving to surfing in the sewers, the inventiveness of Jones’s worldbuilding instantly engages with a nonchalant and genuine sense of fun that culminates in an intriguing meditation on human ethics.
Over the course of thirteen stories, the characters’ lives intertwine to unravel the mystery of Larkin Mills’ supernatural founding and current shady dealings in a cheeky reinvention of the war between Good and Evil. As two young attendants at the local waxwork museum observe on the town’s curious history:
“Good and evil…Right and wrong…God and the devil.”
“Oh, so it’s one of those stories.”
Aptly perceived. For they find in the course of their sleuthing, or, ‘junior investigations,’ that a good-natured adventure calls for some wickedness.
What most captivated me about this novel is its sweeping scope. Transitioning from a science-fiction mystery to a greater account of cosmic battle and creation, Death or Ice Cream? does away with genre pigeonholes and reaches readers of all ages on profound concepts of the human condition. Because Larkin Mills’ origin story is our origin story.
Jones’s masterful wordplay, cheery irony, and thorough command of nonsense lend a charm and approachability to baffling concepts like death and free will. With a heaping scoop of adventure and a sprinkle of philosophy—Platonic, Machiavellian, and plenty biblical—Jones poses answers to the age-old questions, Why do we die? Why does evil exist? Where do we go from there?
You’ll have to visit Mr. Morricone’s Ice Cream Parlor to find out.