In Because I Could Not Stop for Death, Amanda Flower has the inspired idea to center beloved poet Emily Dickinson within a gripping period-appropriate murder mystery. The concept works incredibly well and has enough legs to ensure that this new novel is just the first in a series of historical mysteries involving the Dickinson family.
Because I Could Not Stop for Death starts with down-on-her-luck servant Willa Noble interviewing for a job as one of the maids at the Dickinson household. Luck is not on Willa’s side until an accidental encounter with twenty-four-year-old Emily Dickinson leads to an unexpected job offer.
Willa serves as the narrative point-of-view for the book, which allows Amanda Flower to give glimpses of Emily Dickinson without actually trying to fully penetrate one of the most complex minds of that time. This unlikely pair quickly becomes a formidable force highlighting their many similar qualities despite their vastly different upbringings.
One night, Willa’s brother Henry surreptitiously visits the Dickinson home hinting at a new business venture he has discovered. Not wanting to risk her new position, Willa shoos Henry away agreeing to meet him later in the week at the stables where he is now employed. Unfortunately, the next day Willa gets news that Henry has been killed in a tragic accident when a rogue horse trampled him within its stall.
Things are not adding up for Willa and her new friend – and employer – Emily Dickinson is intrigued enough to agree that an investigation is warranted. Once Willa obtains Henry’s diary these two amateur sleuths are off and running, putting their own lives in peril.
Since Because I Could Not Stop for Death features a relatively young Emily Dickinson, her actual poetry remains in the background for this novel. There are hints about what she is writing late at night at her desk and Amanda Flower cleverly embeds some references to poems that fans of the poet will most certainly recognize. There is also repeated mention of how Emily tends to view the world in a different way from most folks. Certainly, as this historical mystery series continues, Emily Dickinson’s poetic works will undoubtedly become more prominent, but it’s nice to get to know this young woman as a person first rather than just as the once-in-a-lifetime creative mind readers are already familiar with.
Set in 1855, Because I Could Not Stop for Death’s central mystery is focused on some of the most pressing issues of the pre-Civil War era – most importantly the struggle over slave rights and the formation of the Underground Railroad. History fans know this fight will lead our nation into a war that pits State against State and brother against brother; Amanda Flower does an impressive job of giving readers a sense of what those early rumblings would have been like. Amanda Flower broadens the setting beyond Amherst, Massachusetts by taking Emily Dickinson and Willa Noble off to Washington, DC in the middle of the novel. Details about their train journey, a historically-accurate visit to Mount Vernon, and the in-process construction of the Washington Monument will delight readers looking for historical verisimilitude.
Even with all of this to satisfy readers, it is the bond between Willa and Emily that remains the glue both holding the book together and keeping readers invested. Despite being from different classes, these two strong women forge a bond based on mutual respect that feels so authentic, readers would be forgiven to expecting to encounter Willa Noble in biographies of Emily Dickinson. It will be exciting to see what crimes this new dynamic duo will solve (or maybe prevent) in the future. For now, fans of historical mysteries and those looking for more diversity in such tales should add Because I Could Not Stop for Death to their to-be-read pile(s).