The plain truth: A great new series

Look in any bookstore or airport newsstand, or on the shelves of many variety, grocery and drugstores for that matter, and you will see that mystery series are flourishing.  Some are the more hard-boiled detective types; some are heavy on violence.

There are also plenty of series for those of us who prefer the cozier type of mystery, books that are longer on atmosphere and character than on gore and mayhem. You can find mysteries set in nearly every region of the country, not to mention quite a few other countries. Some include recipes. Others offer tips on home repair and renovation, or insights into antiques or literature. Dogs and cats – some of whom can talk – are featured in some series.

I find that an entry in just about any of these cozy series will do in a pinch, to amuse and distract me if I find myself without an unread book when, for example, traveling. But it’s obvious that some series are far superior to others.

What’s the difference? Credible but not too obvious plotting is important, but when it comes to cozy mysteries, plotting is not the make-or-break element.

The better series mysteries present their setting evocatively and honestly. Some authors write superficially, go for the gag or the stereotype when describing the locale and the locals, and propel their stories largely through domestic or romantic crises of their protagonist. These writers produce books that are pleasant enough but don’t stick with you.  Their offerings seem like a thin soup that tastes OK but has little substance and isn’t filling.

P.L. Gaus, by contrast, has produced a series that’s as substantial and filling – and enjoyable – as an Amish chicken potpie.

By Linda Brinson

BLOOD OF THE PRODIGAL. By P.L. Gaus. Plume. 230 pages. $13, paperback.

It is almost unheard of for Bishop Eli Miller, the leader of one of the strictest Old Order Amish sects in Holmes County, Ohio, to seek help from the “English,” the high ones, de Hochen. But when his 10-year-old grandson is kidnapped from his farm, the bishop knows that praying and meditating may not be enough; he may need earthly help – but not the police.

So Miller hitches up his buggy and calls on one of de Hochen he trusts, Cal Troyer, a local Church of Christ pastor. Troyer must leave town for a missions conference, so he asks to call in a friend whose discretion he trusts, one with whom he’s quietly handled a few sticky situations over the years. That friend is Michael Branden, a professor at the nearby college.

Even though the Amish family has asked Troyer and Branden to help, getting past their wariness to useful information proves difficult. But the outlines of the case begin to take shape: The missing boy, Jeremiah Miller, is the child of the bishop’s son Jonah. The bishop had banished Jonah 10 years before, when Jonah was 18, because the teenager had gone so wild during the time of his Rumschpringe. Because they want their young people to understand what they are renouncing before they choose the plain life, the Amish allow them to live in the “English” world for a while. Most have their fling and return home, strengthened in their faith. Some become lost to the worst ways of de Hochen, and the bishop considers exiling them the only hope of saving their souls – and a necessary way to preserve the community. Reluctantly, he tells Branden, he put the ban on his own son

Jeremiah’s mother, one of the wildest of the “English,” turned her baby over to the bishop and his wife before killing herself. Her brother has vowed to take revenge on Jonah.

It is Jonah who apparently has taken Jeremiah, promising to have him back on the farm in time for harvest. The bishop wants the boy back, but imposes a number of restrictions on the inquiry.

When Jonah Miller, dressed in new Amish clothes, turns up dead near his father’s farm, Branden can no longer honor all his promises of discretion and restrictions. Branden brings in the local sheriff’s office, but he also stays deeply involved in the case.

This is a fine mystery. Its puzzling plot has enough twists and turns to keep the reader’s interest. The book skillfully and respectfully evokes the life and faith of the Amish and their interactions with the modern world that surrounds them. Gaus has developed his major characters well, and he shows them struggling with the complex moral issues the case raises.

It’s always a delight to discover a mystery in what promises to be a series. In this case, there’s more than a promise: Gaus has already written several books in his “Amish-Country Mystery” series.  Ohio University Press published the first six; Plume began publishing revised editions of those books and some newer ones last fall. I’ll be looking for them.

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