REVIEW: Amanda Flower’s A PLAIN DISAPPEARANCE, Or The Hammer and the Mouse

A Plain DisappearanceIf there’s one thing Miss Bates can say about the occasional cozy mystery series she follows, it’s that they remind her of a favourite autumnal sweater. Heather-green wool, hand-knit from Scotland, she’s waiting for that October chill to don it and walk the red- and gold-leaf-strewn streets of her native city. Thus is Amanda Flower’s Appleseed Creek series now that Miss Bates has read the latest and third volume: comfortable, familiar, endearing. It’s also lovingly written and in keeping with the sympathetic conventions of the cozy. On the other hand, it suffers from the bane of any series: familiarity breeding contempt … and the particular bane of the cozy, the reader’s increasing difficulty to sustain belief in the viability of that many people murdered in a small town and our heroine’s bad/good luck in consistently finding the bodies! 

One of the ways in which a series like Flower’s elicits loyalty is when the reader is fond of the main characters. Miss Bates loves our amateur sleuth and computer geek heroine, Chloe Humphrey, and her formerly-Amish, now-Mennonite, carpenter-looker boyfriend, Timothy Troyer, as well as the secondary characters, the irrepressible Chief Greta Rose, Chloe’s tormenters and town bullies, Curt and Brock, Grandpa Zook, the Troyer family, and especially the cooking-show addict and aspiring chef, Becky Troyer, Chloe’s roommate and Timothy’s sister. Miss Bates dotes on these characters and, even though it’s a nasty one at times, loves being in the world of Appleseed Creek. The characters are stamped with worthy traits that are close to Miss Bates’s heart: honesty, caring for others, gentle humour, intelligence, and kindness. (Miss Bates read and reviewed the first two volumes in the series here and here, if you’re new to it and want to read in sequence.)

An interesting thing happens to the reader of the long-running series, especially in the cozy mystery sub-genre. The mystery recedes into the background and the characters, if they’re appealing and/or engaging, as Flower’s are, move into the foreground. For example, though Miss Bates is committed to her spinster status (all the more time to bring you her thoughts and opinions on the romance genre, dear reader), she does have her literary “if only” fiancés: first and foremost being P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh. Who wouldn’t want a poet/copper all rolled into that much astuteness and looks? The fact remains, however and this being Miss Bates’s point, that James’s victims and murderers have faded away, but Dalgliesh endures fresh in her mind. That is the mark of a successful seriesr; Flower’s, thus far, has accomplished this.

Flower’s third volume captured Miss Bates because it was romantic and set during her favourite holiday season, Christmas! On Christmas Eve, Chloe and Timothy indulge in a private buggy ride not far from the Troyers’ farm. Timothy gives Chloe one of the most romantic gifts a hero has ever given a heroine (note Miss Bates’s hint in the review title) … and just as they’re about to share some delicious avowals of love and tenderness … enter The Body. Katie Lambright, a beautiful Amish girl, the focus of several English and Amish boys’ attentions in Appleseed Creek, has been murdered. At Chief Rose’s request, Chloe, the Chief’s “Amish whisperer,” and Timothy are called to aid in the investigation in the midst of Appleseed Creek’s Christmas celebrations. The resolution to the mystery is conventional and not terribly interesting: Timothy and Chloe follow clues and interview the town’s citizens to arrive at the truth. Echoing James’s Dalgliesh once more, every murder has one of three motives, “love, lust, or lucre;” Flower’s mystery runs true to form.

The most enjoyable aspects of Flower’s A Plain Disappearance are Chloe and Timothy’s romance, Chloe’s continued uncertainty in finding her place in a small town and among the Amish, the cultural tension between the still-Amish Troyer family and their estranged children, Timothy and Becky, and the working-out of the Amish community’s adherence to traditional ways and values while making their way in early 21st-century American Midwest.

Chloe and Timothy share a wonderfully romantic exchange that encapsulates, for Miss Bates, what it means to love another person: ” ‘I’m always paying attention to you,’ I whispered. He pulled me close and whispered. ‘And I’m always paying attention to you.’ ” Prosaic? Maybe. But isn’t the idea of “paying attention” the greatest gift one person can give another? The idea of putting aside self and “paying attention” in order to understand the beloved’s needs and how to best take care of him/her. It’s really quite lovely; and even though Chloe and Timothy share only a few chaste kisses, the trajectory of their love over the three books is thoroughly convincing and engaging. It also works to offset, to foil, Chloe’s occasional feelings of alienation, witness what she remarks vis-à-vis her place among the Amish, ” … here I was still separated by language, by tradition, and by the past.” It is no wonder that the Christmas season, the inspirational aspect of this novel (as well as one surprise conversion!) serves as the hopeful, reconciling ethos to changes in our characters’ lives: Chloe and Timothy’s pledging of their troth, the dénouement of the older Troyer children’s separation from their Amish parents, and the hesitant steps towards reconciliation that, thus far, has been Chloe’s strained relationship with her father.

This makes A Plain Death sound terribly solemn; but, it isn’t. Flower’s novel is humorous, even LOL-funny in places. Becky’s obsessive planning, cooking, and execution of her Christmas party are amusing. The Troyers’ younger son’s preparation and participation in the Christmas pageant … watch out for runaway sheep … are hilarious. And Grandfather Zook is charming and wise and funny as always and key to the mystery’s solving.

And so, dear reader, A Plain Disappearance will not disappoint, if you’ve read the other books in the series, or if you haven’t. It’s nicely written, a tad conventional, suffers from certain symptoms of series-itis, but can still capture you with its portrayal of our loveable leads, Chloe and Timothy, their friends, and family. Herein, you will find “a mind lively and at ease” Emma.

Miss Bates is grateful to B&H Publishing for an ARE she received via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review. A Plain Disappearance was released on Sept. 1st and is found in the usual places and formats.

Who are your favourite romantic couples involved in mayhem and mystery in small towns and large? Certainly, Chloe and Timothy are shaping up to be such. Miss Bates has always loved the urbane Nick and Nora of Thin Man fame, rendered incomparable by William Powell and Myrna Loy, of course.