“The Names of Our Tears: An Amish-Country Mystery,” by P.L. Gaus. A Plume Book, New York, 2013. 240 pages. Paperback. $15.
Sometimes setting trumps plot. P.L. Gaus’ newest Amish mystery, “The Names of Our Tears,” has a great thing going with his beautifully evoked novels set amid the society of the “Plain People” in Holmes County, Ohio.
It is the Amish response to the murder of one of their own, 19-year-old Ruth Zook, that interests us. She has been shot in the head and then brutally trampled by her terrified horse. The old Amish widower Mervin Byler, who is on his way to buy homemade chocolates from the widow Stutzman, discovers her mutilated body. A lavishly detailed procedural commences.
Local detectives, the DEA and the EPA all get involved when cause of the poisoned watering pond on the Zook farm is found to be cocaine. Ruth must have unknowingly carried the cocaine back from a trip to the Florida panhandle. When she realizes what she has, she throws the drugs into the pond. A short time later, she is shot dead.
The most compelling character among the many for whom this murder is unrelenting torment is a young Amish orphan named Emma Wengard. Her family, riding home in a buggy, had been slain by a speeding tractor-trailer truck. A traumatized Emma, taken in by the Zooks, speaks to no one but Ruth. When Ruth is killed, Emma withdraws completely in her desire to end her suffering and join Ruth.
Gaus presents fascinating detail about an Amish society that balances “modern” surroundings with its own way of life, about a strong communal bond, about daily farm life where even a trip in a buggy can be life threatening. Ruth’s body, for example, when it is finally returned to the farm, must be packed on ice during the wake since there is no electricity to keep the surroundings cool and no embalming.
Ruth is one of several unknowing Amish girls caught up in the transport of cocaine to Ohio from their vacation spot in Florida. Two other young women go missing and rural law enforcement officers, stretched thin, work closely together to maximize scarce resources. Detective Sergeant Ricky Niell joins officers in Florida to follow the slim leads there, while the rest of the crew interview reluctant family that refuses, for example, to cooperate with a sketch artist because they do not condone graven images. They do find both missing girls only to see both escape under their watch. Gaus does a good job capturing their frustrations.
Bitter, wet April weather confounds everything. In fact, Gaus throws the proverbial book at the detectives and sheriff’s department. The EPA takes control of the Zook farm because of the poisoned pond, making further investigation difficult at the same time that they torment the bereaved extended family gathering to mourn Ruth. Flooding, sleet, downpours and occasional wet snow drench detectives. Things seem to coalesce into a sodden hopeless mess.
Page 2 of 2 - Gaus lets some issues resolve but others remain mysteries, not so much because he has another book in mind but because this is how life really is in his evenly rendered world where unlike societies intersect and people courageously push on despite harsh realities.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at email@example.com. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.