By Deborah Woodworth
Avon, 248 pp.
By P. L. Gaus
Ohio University Press, 206 pp.
The classic English mystery thrives on the paradox that tiny, bucolic hamlets harbor vicious killers. Juxtaposing peaceful village life with the murderous emotions of jealousy, rage, greed and lust bring into stark relief the thinly veiled intensity of the human experience--and provide spinster-sleuths like Miss Marple with something better to do than knitting. If murder can strike there, it is within the capability of Everyman-even our porch-rocking neighbors may be hiding homicidal secrets.
How much more spine-tingling when the murders occur not in just any small community, but in a closed religious society misunderstood by outsiders? Two terrific new mysteries set among the self-contained Christian communities of the Shakers and the Amish demonstrate these insider-outsider tensions.
"A Simple Shaker Murder" brings back dauntless Sister Rose Callahan, the heroine of Deborah Woodworth's previous titles, "Death of a Winter Shaker," "A Deadly Shaker Spring," and "Sins of a Summer Shaker." Sister Rose's dwindling 1930s Shaker community, loosely based on an actual Shaker village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, showcases Woodworth's remarkable knowledge of Shaker customs and beliefs. In this yarn, a young girl named Mairin witnesses the brutal hanging of her foster father, but cannot speak about what she has seen. Sister Rose believes she is mute because the killer has threatened her. But little Mairin is plagued by nightmares and draws strange pictures of snake-entwined trees when she wakes up. Rose surmises that she is trying to describe what she saw, while other Shakers in the village think she is an instrument of "Mother Ann's Work," hearkening back to an earlier era in Shaker history when individual Shakers, especially girls, received spiritual messages from the long-deceased Mother Ann Lee in the form of vivid drawings, songs, and new rituals. What's truly wonderful about Woodworth's novel is that she leaves the question mostly open-ended; readers can decide for themselves about the spiritual import of Mairin's drawings, which may emanate from Mother Ann, Mairin's own subconscious, or some combination of the two.
As a pure mystery, "A Simple Shaker Murder" follows the formula well; there are several possible suspects and motives, and no one choice is more obvious than the rest. But it is the characterization, not the plot, that drives this novel. Sister Rose, a delightfully feisty red-head, never shrinks from speaking her mind, and is especially prone to challenge the authority of the sanctimonious Elder Wilhelm. She is also deeply spiritual, warmly extending love to the troubled Mairin and offering firm leadership to the struggling community.
"Broken English" is a more sophisticated novel, with hardened characters and a grislier plot (in the Shaker murder, violence generally happens offstage, while here it is front and center). The small college town of Millersburg, Ohio is horrified when a newly escaped convict kills a young woman in her home. He is immediately caught by a passer-by and imprisoned. During his first night in prison, the young woman's father, an Amish convert named David Hawkins, visits and tearfully chokes out his forgiveness--but something the convict whispers to Hawkins makes him go ballistic, and he winds up trying to choke the man behind bars. Hawkins flees, and when another murder occurs that seems related, the local sheriff suspects him--particularly when it becomes clear that the Amish convert has an alarmingly checkered military past.
Gaus's plot has some intriguing twists and turns, though the identity of the killer will be instantly apparent to anyone with a working knowledge of Hebrew. Part of Gaus's success comes from his seamless weaving of Amish life with small-town America: the multi-layered Hawkins, who has renounced violence and the lures of the world--or has he?--points to the fluidity of the actual boundaries between Amish life and the world of "the English." Those boundaries can bend or they can break, resulting in the intriguing title of the novel.
Both mysteries make for compelling reading, and both authors have done their homework about the setting and religious practices of their characters. There is a certain pleasantly regressive quality to these titles; they capitalize on a touristy nostalgia while at the same time reminding their mostly urban and suburban readers that deadly problems plague tiny historic spiritual communities, too.