Clouds without Rain: An Ohio Amish Mystery
by P.L. Gaus
Reviewed by Martin Kich
Clouds without Rain is the third novel in a series set among the Amish communities of Holmes County, Ohio. The series features history professor, antique firearms expert, and part-time sheriff's deputy Michael Branden, along with his longtime friends, Sheriff Bruce Robertson and Pastor Caleb Troyer. Previous novels in the series have been Blood of the Prodigal and Broken English. Clouds without Rain will not disappoint fans of the first two books, but it is not so strong a novel that it will bring many new readers to the series. It is not a mediocre effort; I would prefer to describe it as a good mystery that teases the reader with the many possibilities for its being much better.
The author obviously has an intimate knowledge of the Amish way of life and of the issues that arise between the Amish and their"English" neighbors. In Clouds without Rain, the Amish are seemingly bedeviled on all sides. A former bishop has been very lenient, allowing all sorts of compromises with modern life, and the cumulative effect has been an erosion of the Amish's traditional values and practices and of their sense of responsibility toward their families and communities. At the same time, the new bishop=s prodigal brother has been buying up farmland, providing it through lease-to-buy contracts to young Amish families, and then using a clause in the contracts to sell the land at an enormous profits to outside developers of subdivisions. Beyond the ethical dubiousness of this practice, the new Amish bishop recognizes that, by forcing the men of those households to seek employment in the towns, it will undermine his efforts to restore an adherence to the strict, traditional ways. Lastly, this new bishop is faced with a crime wave being perpetrated by Amish teenagers who use motorcycles to rob Amish carriage drivers on remote rural roads. The bishop senses intuitively that the crimes indicate a broader and more serious corruption of the teenagers= souls. All of these issues are presented vividly, but their resolution is less satisfying. It is one thing to suggest the secrecy with which the Amish operate within the broader legal and social institutions of "English" communities. It is quite another thing to keep their secrets from the reader--to tease the reader, in effect, with revelations that are never fully revealed.
The mystery in Clouds without Rain begins with a fiery crash: when the horse inexplicably staggers, an Amish carriage stops in mid-turn into a driveway; a tractor trailer carrying Amish furniture crashes into the carriage, setting off a chain reaction among the vehicles stopped behind it; between the debris from the carriage and the flames from the ruptured gas lines of the vehicles, the carnage is extraordinary for the setting. Unfortunately, none of the subsequent crimes that complicate Michael Branden=s development of an explanation for the accident is anywhere near as vivid or gripping as the opening itself. Although the narrative is detailed well enough to keep the reader turning the pages with interest, there is little of that sense of urgency that comes with devouring a real "page turner." After Sheriff Robertson is burned in trying to assist victims of the accident, his condition steadily deteriorates as he gradually recognizes how much a longtime acquaintance truly loves him. This sub-plot is sensitively handled but nonetheless rather predictable in its trajectory and outcome Likewise, although the title refers to a prolonged drought, the lack of rain has little to do with the mystery and serves largely as just an additional background detail, reinforcing the theme but only incidentally contributing to its development.