REVIEW: “And Now For Something Completely Different,” Amanda Flower’s A PLAIN DEATH

A Plain DeathFor some time now, Miss Bates had a hankering to read outside of her contemporary and historical romance comfort zone. She wanted to read an Amish-set romance, but didn’t know enough about the sub-genre to select an author or title. She’d read about Amanda Flower’s Appleseed Creek series in USA Today and thought this might be her gentled way in, thought she’d pay a call and linger for a spot of tea. Miss Bates is leery of the cozy mystery’s cuteness and catness, having consumed tons of these before embracing romance wholeheartedly. Once assured that there was a strong romantic element woven into the who-done-it, she gave Flower’s first Appleseed Creek, Amish-set, inspirational, cozy mystery a try. With some misgivings aside, smack, smack, like trying a new food, she uttered, “me like”.

Flower’s A Plain Death opens with our amateur sleuth, Chloe Humphrey, on her way to a new job as director of IT at Harshberger College in Appleseed Creek, Ohio, in the heart of Amish farm country. She rescues and befriends Amish girl Becky Troyer. Becky’s desire to be an artist and her family’s opposition to the idea led her to leave home to take her chance in town. Our Chloe, sympathetic to anyone experiencing a family’s disapproval for reasons of her own, takes her in. She meets Becky’s dishy master carpenter older brother, Timothy, also estranged from their Amish family, and their liking for each other is evident immediately. Hurrah, celebrated Miss Bates, the romance! When Becky “borrows” Chloe’s car to go to a job interview and accidentally kills Bishop Sutter, a prominent leader in the Amish community, Timothy and Chloe are drawn into a search for the elder’s real killer. The stakes are raised when the police chief reveals that Chloe’s brake line had been cut. Who’s to say that the victim wasn’t meant to be Chloe herself?

Miss Bates was engrossed in Flower’s story, but found the mystery was not half as interesting as other elements. First and foremost, though understated and not the focus of the novel, the romance between Timothy and Chloe was lovely. Even Chloe as first-person narrator, a device Miss Bates usually dislikes, didn’t diminish her enjoyment. Chloe’s voice is the best of first-person narration; it’s understated, gently self-effacing, and humorous. She doesn’t whine; she’s neither strident nor a doormat. Add Timothy’s steadfastness, labourer’s muscle-bound sexiness, loyalty, and grinning charm, you have a root-for couple.

Another thread that Miss Bates found engaging was the weaving of Amish ways into the narrative. Flower portrays the Amish without romanticizing them, but points to the strength of the community, its pacifism and unity. She does not mince words about the flip side of that, its insularity and condemnation of those members who deviate even in the most harmless of ways from its ethos. The portrait is respectful, admiring, but realistic. There are costs to being Amish (as there are to being a part of any cultural, ethnic, or religious identity) and that cost is portrayed honestly, as is the cost of abandoning what are clearly defined, comfortable, safe parameters for the individual.

Yet another appealing element was the protagonists’ faith. Chloe is what Miss Bates calls a God-talker: that is, the tendency of a character to pray in a familiar fashion, as if God was a patient, helpful friend. This can be annoying when it’s portrayed as relentless zeal, but in Chloe’s voice, it was subtly done and flowed well with the narration. It worked. One of most interesting faith explorations was in the portrayal of the fallen Amish man, Timothy. Gosh, the tool belt, grin, and blue eyes were more than enough to make this fellow loveable to Miss Bates, but his revelations about how he came to leave the Amish community and, more painfully, his family, are poignant and moving. Timothy erred and strayed, seriously, and this led to his leaving, but as he says to Chloe, ” … there’s a difference between Amish faith and Gotte’s grace. Amish faith would not forgive me but the grace of Christ would.”

Flower does not hesitate to show that sometimes, while admirable in its ethos, there is harshness to Amish faith that rejects and ejects. On the other hand, there is a scene where Chloe and Timothy confront the bad guys that, in most romantic suspense (Miss Bates is pointing at you, KGI) would result in a rock-’em-sock-’em vigilante-style brutality for the bad guys. Not so for Flower’s novel and not only because it’s a cozy (the bad guys really are bad and they’re violent too; they man-handle and bruise Chloe on one occasion). Timothy’s intervention reflects his pacifist Amish upbringing. He is calm; he is firm. He is intelligent. He makes his point. He still rescues the girl and he doesn’t beat anyone up or shoot him. Beautifully rendered and refreshing.

The faith perspective, especially Timothy’s and Chloe’s, isn’t solely about non-violence and Jesus-as-Friend. It is anti-materialistic; it is about wealth, competition, and status not being the only ways to live one’s life. The Amish stand for this ethos, even though Flower does not hesitate to show that the Amish community can also be insular and rigid. Grand-father Zook, Timothy and Becky’s maternal grand-father, is a wonderful voice for what is best in the Amish way of life and thinking.

There are more bouquets Miss Bates would like to send Flower; yes, the pun is intended. One is for a riveting scene when Timothy and Chloe are caught in a tornado. She combines it with tender avowals: the storm rages outside while tenderness reigns within. Really good. Another theme that is explored is the idea of what is/who are family: these young characters, Chloe, Becky, and Timothy have to contend with the conflict between loyalty to one’s family and individual expression and independence. In one manner or another, all three are stifled by family and its resident guilt and obligation, yet all three crave family love and acceptance. The final resolution is tenderly portrayed. There’s an HEA; it isn’t made up of a couple and potential babydom. It is a couple, a family, and a community. The circle is cast wide.

But not everything worked for Miss Bates: the fact remained that she read this for the romance, Chloe’s voice, the lovely hero, and the faith element, not the mystery. The issues surrounding the mystery were interesting to her. P. D. James’s Dalgliesh said that a crime, especially murder, has one of three motives behind it: “love, lust, or lucre.” That is certainly the case here. Nevertheless, while the issues the mystery explores, community, progress, greed, exploitation of the earth (you’re getting the picture that the answer lies in “lucre) the fact remained that Miss Bates had figured out the who-done-it and why-he-done-it well in advance of the final chapters.

Moreover, like every neophyte writer, Flower exhibited some very awkward writing initially: wordy prose, stilted dialogue (okay, that happens quite a bit, but there’s some good stuff too), and wonky phrasing. However, Chloe’s voice gains in momentum without being overbearing, the prose becomes smoother, and the awkwardness a lot less intrusive as the pages flash on the e-reader.

There are also a few scenes where Chloe is jealous of a girl she perceives as her rival for Timothy’s affections. A conversation with Timothy and some thought (she’s usually so smart that it’s annoying to have Chloe act dumb) to Timothy’s gracious, loving gestures and bright-eyed attraction and affection for her would dissuade her of any notion that his affections were directed towards anyone else. Leave out the rivalry, just let Chloe and Timothy be. It’s enough. It’s good.

Miss Bates’s enjoyment of A Plain Death came from its hybrid nature: there is a romance that is fresh (more, please) a sympathetic, forgiving theology, and a charming not-too-precious small-town setting. Flower had her hooked: the development of the romance and the beloved secondary characters (and not so beloved, witness the smack-able police chief, Greta Rose) are there for the reading in the second book and eagerly awaited third. The wilted mystery and caricaturish villains, down to the dented pick-up truck, Miss Bates can do without. Chloe’s cat, Gigabyte, was pretty cool and Timothy’s dog, Mabel, so endearing. The good outweighs the bad here; in Flower, Miss Bates discerns “a mind lively and at ease.” Emma

Miss Bates is grateful to B&H Publishing for an ARE via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review. You can purchase A Plain Death in the usual places and formats.

Do you read outside the romance genre? Do you read cozy mysteries with a strong romantic thread? Which ones do you like and why? Do you have favourites that you would recommend to Miss Bates? ‘Cause, you know, the TBR just ain’t high enough!

8 thoughts on “REVIEW: “And Now For Something Completely Different,” Amanda Flower’s A PLAIN DEATH

  1. My dear Miss Bates
    I am not a reader of ‘cozy’ style mysteries; I like my mysteries just a little tougher. But I was wracking my brain for something to recommend and I came up with two possibilities.
    First, the short series–Charlaine Harris’ “Shakespeare” series. Set in small town Arkansas, “Shakespeare’s Landlady” is the first in the 5 book series. Lily, our heroine, has had a super-traumatic event in her life and is recovering the best way she knows how. Her love interest is a former cop who messed-up on the job and is now a private investigator. The romance is nice , there is a believable HEA at the end of the series. The mysteries are good and the portrayl of small town life is not in the least sweet or sentimental.
    Now for the long series–Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee stories, set in the Navajo country in NM and AZ. The series is addictive–you have been warned! Leaphorn is an older cop, much more worldly than young Jim Chee. He is married, then widowed, then finds a new, fulfilling relationship. Chee’s love-life is a mess–he keeps falling for the wrong girl, until he finally recognizes Ms Right.
    The mysteries are good, but the best part is the total immersion into modern Navaho life–showing both the good and the ugly. There were three early book featuring only Joe Leaphorn, followed by 3 books featuring only Jim Chee. The first book featuring both characters is “Skinwalkers”, which is followed by my favorite “The Thief of Time”.

    Of course, there’s the JD Robb “In Death” series–definitely not cozy, definitely romantic. “Naked in Death” is the first. But you are probably already aware of these, as JD Robb is Nora Roberts.

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    • Greetings to you and many, many thanks for the wonderful recommendations. I’ve heard of Charlaine Harris, of course, because Miss Bates was sucked into the insanity that is True Blood, though I don’t watch it anymore. I even read up to book three, but gave up after that. The Shakespeare series, I think, preceded Sookie and sounds much more amenable. I believe she also has another series, which is yellowing on the bookshelves (yes, paper!) languishing next to the Kleypas historical keepers. And when I walked over there now, lo and behold, I found a copy of the first of the Shakespeare series, Real Murders!:) This is what comes of having out-of-control TBRs, obviously in several genres …

      As for the Joe? Leaphorn/Jim Chee, I do admit I read those years and years ago, every single one and loved them! They are totally addictive and Leaphorn is up there with Atticus Finch as a literary boyfriend for a spinster of a certain age! And Thief of Time is my favourite too! Hillerman gave me a life-long fascination with Dine culture and a yen to visit the Four Corners, see a hogan, and visit Window Rock. To this day, one of my favourite pair of earrings is Dine-made and every time I put them on, I think of Hillerman and his wonderful books. I’m so glad we have them in common. I believe there’s even a TV series of some of the books knocking about, though I haven’t seen it and can’t vouch for its goodness or authenticity. However, I can heartily recommend and urge you to watch the film Thunderheart with a very young and dishy Val Kilmer, playing a cop solving a murder in Dine country, scoffishly not listening to the spirits and conflicted over his Dine heritage. It’s so good; I must have watched it about ten times.

      J.D. Robb! Yes, I listened to the first of the In Death series … how many are there, about a hundred now?;) I liked it and have added it to the massive TBR!

      The other series I quite enjoy once in a while is Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Rev. Clare/Russ series and their wonderful, tormented love story! I’m sure you know this and have read it. If not, the first one is In the Bleak Midwinter and you’ll love it.

      For something a little “tougher,” I hope you’ve read James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series … so good; very early one, Black Cherry Blues is my favourite, where Dave has to come to terms with his time in ‘Nam.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my plea and contribute to the already-massive TBR … thank goodness for the human ingenuity that created the e-reader!

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      • Aha! We made a pilgrimage (we called it our John Ford/Louis L’AmourTony Hillerman Tour of Awesomeness). I even took a picture of the Window Rock police station! My bit of Dine jewelry is a silver lizard brooch. I have watch the tv series; I enjoyed it–but not as much as the books.
        Ah yes–“Thunderheart” happy sighs.

        Craig Johnson has a great series set in northern Wyoming among the Cheyenne–hero is an older cop-Walt Longmire.(the tv series of the same name has the same characters, but really is an alternate universe storyline compared to the books). Anyway, the first book is “The Cold Dish”. The book series is a bit darker in tone than the Hillerman books.

        And yes, I am among the many anxiously awaiting the next episode in the Rev Clare/ Chief Russ melodrama. And I read the first 8 or 9 or so Dave Robicheaux books and then my interest petered out(anyway, it was after Bootsie died that I quit).

        Ah, “Real Murders”–the first featuring the lovely named Aurora Teagarden. Good series, too.

        I will offer up a few more authors who are on my auto-read list–
        Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knox books-set in modern North Carolina. First is “Bootlegger’s Daughter”
        C S Harris’ Regency England era Sebastian St Cyr books–first is “What Angels Fear”.
        Tasha Alexander–Victorian age England lady Emily books–first is “And Only to Deceive”.

        I’m having fun cruising my Goodreads library for suggestions.

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        • Your cruising is Miss Bates’s gain!!!, though a bruising to the wallet!;) May Miss Bates have one moment of greenish envy for your Tour of Awesomeness? … sigh, sounds wonderful, so glad you got to do that. What a dream trip.

          Everyone else I’ve heard of, but Craig Johnson is new. Must look at that! Love that kind of stuff.

          And Bootsie … poor Bootsie, I’d forgotten about her. Have you seen the film? Okay, Tommy Lee Jones, on whom I’ve “crushed,” as the young’uns would say, since The Eyes of Laura Mars (‘member that one?) plays Robicheaux, mystery forgettable, but Tommy is great!

          I’ve wanted to read Maron and Harris (doesn’t she write romance under another name?) and Alexander (great covers). There’s also Deanna Raybourn and the Julia Grey series, which I liked initially. And we ought to take a moment and wish Godspeed to Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels/Mertz and her Egypt-set mysteries.

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  2. Mystery was my genre before I ever read romance.

    For a relationship that develops over a long series rather in the Julia Spencer-Fleming style (though less fraught), I recommend Deborah Crombie’s, featuring a pair of British detectives. They aren’t cozy, exactly, but they are very character-driven police procedurals. I lost track of it several books ago, but really enjoyed earlier books. Gemma Jones is a single mother at the start, and Duncan Kincaid is her boss, and the development of their personal lives is a big part of the series.

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    • Greetings! I read tons of mystery too before I returned/turned to romance. I don’t think I ever read mysteries with the same enjoyment as I do romance, though. They’re more like the crossword puzzle that I used to do daily. There are character-driven series, or ones with a strong voice, or a strong romance that I can still enjoy.

      Thank you very much for the suggestion: I actually have a Crombie languishing on the bookshelf that I’ll try when I think a little breather from romance is necessary!

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  3. Miss Bates

    You are correct. C S Harris is also Candace Proctor.

    I am old enough to have read Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters from the get-go. I still have my hardback of “Ammie, Come Home”–one of the best romantic spooky stories I’ve ever read. Her Michaels titles (like Ammie) usually had a paranormal twist, her Peters titles were a bit more light-hearted with an art or archaeological twist. I liked the first 5 or 6 Amelia Peabody mysteries, but sorta burned out on the series before she stopped writing.
    I also own at least one of her non-fiction Egyptology books, written as Dr. Barbara Mertz.
    RIP

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    • Thank you for the C. S. Harris confirmation! You are a long time fan of Peters/Michaels. And that story sounds delightful. We do tend to burn out on series, don’t we? But Ms Mertz gave a lot of pleasure to so many, so I stand with you in saying, RIP.

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