Published by Berkley on September 20, 2022
Genres: Cozy Mystery, Historical Mystery
Format: Kindle or ebook
Source: the publisher
Purchase: Amazon | Book Depository | Bookshop | Audible
Emily Dickinson and her housemaid, Willa Noble, realize there is nothing poetic about murder in this first book in an all-new series from USA Today bestselling and Agatha Award-winning author Amanda Flower.
January 1855. Willa Noble knew it was bad luck when it was pouring rain on the day of her ever-important job interview at the Dickinson home in Amherst, Massachusetts. When she arrived late, disheveled with her skirts sodden and filthy, she'd lost all hope of being hired for the position. As the housekeeper politely told her they'd be in touch, Willa started toward the door of the stately home only to be called back by the soft but strong voice of Emily Dickinson. What begins as tenuous employment turns to friendship as the reclusive poet takes Willa under her wing.
Tragedy soon strikes and Willa's beloved brother, Henry, is killed in a tragic accident at the town stables. With no other family and nowhere else to turn, Willa tells Emily about her brother's death and why she believes it was no accident. Willa is convinced it was murder. Henry had been very secretive of late, only hinting to Willa that he'd found a way to earn money to take care of them both. Viewing it first as a puzzle to piece together, Emily offers to help, only to realize that she and Willa are caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse that reveals corruption in Amherst that is generations deep. Some very high-powered people will stop at nothing to keep their profitable secrets even if that means forever silencing Willa and her new mistress....
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.
Emily Dickinson and her maid investigate murder on the Underground Railroad
It takes audacity, as well as a love of the subject, to base a fictional mystery series on a historical figure as well-known and well-loved as Emily Dickinson. Amanda Flower pulls it off pretty well, if not quite perfectly. Her love and respect for “Miss Emily” is evident throughout the novel. I enjoyed reading this first novel in the series, and look forward to seeing what other mysteries arise in Emily’s life.
The story is told through the eyes of Dickinson’s fictional maid, Willa Noble, who serves as both co-investigator and, through her relationship to the murdered young man, as the initial impetus for the investigation. Her brother’s death has a profound impact on Willa, and she is determined to find out who killed him and why, in hopes of bringing the culprit to justice, but also to expunge her own sense of guilt for not protecting him better.
The investigation leads Emily and Willa into the hidden world of the Underground Railroad and the brewing conflict between “slave” and “free” states. It also puts both of them (and particularly Willa) into quite real danger.
I found the mystery puzzling for the first two thirds of the book, but eventually I figured out the villain (long before Emily and Willa did; I felt they should have caught on a little sooner.) The red herrings are, perhaps, a bit obvious in retrospect, but as I was reading, I was surprised several times by what the pair learned, or what the clues seemed to suggest.
Flower does an excellent job contrasting the young women’s personalities and their class differences. Willa is driven by a need to protect her brother and keep a roof over both their heads. She is a hard worker, and well aware of her place in society; the latter often makes her uncomfortable with some of Emily’s plans and actions. Willa’s mother had a great influence on her, as did her father’s abandonment of the family. Both factors affect her friendship with Matthew, an Amherst policeman who has feelings for Willa.
Flower’s Emily is impulsive, intelligent, and observant, except when her attention is caught by her “inner life” of writing. She can be decisive (particularly when acting on impulse) and outspoken—sometimes too much so, both in terms of the dictates of antebellum society and the caution needed by an amateur investigator. Flower captures the nature of most of the Dickinson family relationships quite well, but I wasn’t quite convinced by her portrayal of Emily herself, nor of the prickly relationship between Emily’s sister Lavinia and Emily. While the fictional Emily’s willingness to traverse the distance between the classes rings true with what I know of the real Emily Dickinson, as does her outspokeness, her interest in investigating a crime and her lack of caution in pursuing that investigation weren’t quite in keeping with the historical Emily I know, or think I know. (By the way, if your image of Emily Dickinson is of the reclusive poet in white dresses, you should know that this book takes place before that period of her life.)
I acknowledge, however, that I’m not an expert on Emily Dickinson, just an enthusiastic amateur. My own conception of “Miss Emily” is forged through reading her poetry, the play The Belle of Amherst*, and, more recently, a book about Dickinson as a musician.** She was an accomplished, even gifted pianist who, in her early years, studied piano and choral singing with the same dedication she later brought to her writing. I was a bit sorry not to see any mention of her musical interests in Because I Could Not Stop for Death, since the book is set during the period in which Dickenson was still actively engaged in making and enjoying music.
The other challenge of writing historical mysteries of any sort, whether based on a historical figure or not, is getting the history right. On the whole, I think Flower does a good job in this regard. I’m not aware of any historical connection between Amherst and the Underground Railroad, but given how many Massachusetts towns are associated with the Underground Railroad, and the necessary secrecy surrounding it, it’s certainly plausible that Amherst played a part. And the rest of the historical details seem fairly accurate to me. One blatant linguistic anachronism did throw me temporarily out of the flow of the story; hopefully it was fixed before the book went to press.*** Otherwise, the historical details served to bolster my sense of being “in” the story.
I’m really looking forward to seeing how the series and the characters develop. While they never felt “flat” to me, there’s certainly room to explore more depth in both the main characters as well as the recurring secondary characters, particularly Matthew and the Dickinson family. I also hope to see more complexity of plot as well as specific references to Emily Dickenson’s poems and music. But overall, the series’s concept delights me, and I’m eager to see where it goes from here.
* I have both read and seen William Luce’s one-woman play, The Belle of Amherst, and even performed a portion of it. Back in my college years, for an introductory course on poetry in which we studied Dickinson’s oeuvre for several weeks, I excerpted, memorized, and performed a 21-minute monologue from the play for my classmates (in lieu of a paper, and with the professor’s permission—though I don’t think he was expecting anything that long and elaborate!)
** Emily Dickinson’s Music Book and the Musical Life of an American Poet (George Boziwick)
*** The phrase was “under the radar,” but radar wasn’t even invented until WWII, nearly 80 years after this book takes place. Hopefully the copyeditor caught that, but I don’t have a finished copy available to be sure.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- COYER Seasons 2022: Fall