A Brief Review of
Harmless as Doves:
An Amish-Country Mystery.
By P. L. Gaus
Hardback: Ohio University Press, 2011.
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Reviewed by Bart A. Fletcher
While this is the author’s seventh mystery in the Amish-Country series, it is the first time I have had the pleasure of entering his literary territory. I have a particular fondness for authors’ book series, but I am reluctant to read out of order because I miss the nuances of character, plot and location that build over the course of time. There is also a certain sense of satisfaction to discover the ways in which an author’s craft is enlarged and honed throughout several similarly themed books. So, as I picked up Harmless as Doves, reading Gaus for the first time, I wondered how my out-of-sequence reading experience might affect my reading pleasure.
My concerns were immediately softened in the first paragraph of chapter one. “Well before dawn, Bishop Leon D. Shetler was coaxed from sleep by the whispers of his morning chores, and he rose up and sat on the edge of his bed, honoring his custom of thanking God for the peace that rested over his household.” This deftly crafted initial sentence captures the essence of the ensuing pages. Immediately, Gaus draws the reader into the inner world of his book’s chief character. Throughout the book we learn of Shetler’s loving thoughts toward his wife, the inner struggles of a spiritual leader in the midst of a changing cultural landscape, and the power of a simple life lived with integrity. The author is able to make his story live without resorting to smarmy moralism, on the one hand, or to cynical deconstructionism on the other.
On a more intuitive, critical level, I wondered how the author would utilize the cultural landscape of the Amish to spin his tale, reflecting the simplicity of the lifestyle while including the requisite complexities inherent in a compelling mystery. I was not disappointed. Gaus honors the Amish way of life while cleverly interweaving the necessary twists and turns. His characterizations of both “insiders” and “outsiders” feel true to life, adding credibility. For me his most effective work as a writer is revealed in his ability to share the Amish way of life with those who know these communities only from the outside. The author’s skill is especially clear as he shows the reader the levels of diversity existing within the Amish community. Less skilled writers might attempt to do this by providing a banal foil in the presence of numerous characters cast as “outsiders.” Gaus, rather, takes the time to provide careful, subtle clues, which a discerning reader barely notices.
I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to discover P. L. Gaus, but I know this: I will soon start to read the series from the beginning. His work is just that good.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com