For 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!