My purpose in writing the Amish-Country Mysteries is to illuminate Amish culture in a mystery novel, where everything about a person’s culture, family, mindset, and motive is pertinent to the solution of the mystery. Quite naturally, I have often been asked why I write murder mysteries about Amish people, who are arguably the most peaceful Americans anyone knows, and my answer is always in two parts. First, Amish society is endlessly fascinating, and it deserves to be better understood. Second, crime fiction gives us one of the best vehicles in popular fiction to explore the human condition.
I write about all aspects of Amish society, including lifestyle, religion, traditions, and separateness, and I hope my readers will gain a better understanding of even the most subtle points of Amish culture. What is it like to live Amish, to think Amish, and to pray Amish? Why do Amish people insist on living by the severest of rules? Why do they hold themselves apart from the rest of us, travel only in horse-drawn buggies, farm the old ways, eschew most modern conveniences, worship privately, and hold to Christian pacifism more doggedly than they do to their own safety and well-being? In other words, I try to mine for the deepest cultural gems.
The first six mysteries in the series addressed shunning, pacifism, repentance, life struggles in a closed society, failures of leadership, and the teenagers’ Rumspringe, to test the benefits of modern life. The seventh novel (Harmless as Doves, Ohio University Press, 2011; Plume paperback, June 26, 2012) examined genetic defects resulting from close intermarriage and ethical issues raised by the availability of modern medicine. It was set partly in the Amish winter vacation colony in Pinecraft, Fla., in the eastern suburbs of Sarasota. The Florida setting is revisited in the eighth story (The Names of Our Tears, Plume, 2013), about the vulnerability of young and unsuspecting Amish people to nefarious influences in the modern world. But for the most part, my stories are draped across the numerous cultural divides that exist in Holmes County, Ohio. One Amish sect is pitted against another. English (non-Amish) characters are perplexed and challenged by Amish practices. In Holmes County, the mix of cultures is both broad and intense, and an author couldn’t ask for a more dramatic setting to draw out Amish culture and contrast it with its neighbors.
Naturally I find that readers want to know if my stories ring true to Amish life. The best answer I have for this is the story of an Old Order Amish farmer who read several of my stories and remarked to the neighbor from whom he had borrowed the books, “These are such marvelous stories. And just think—they are all true!” When she told him that they were works of fiction from start to finish, he became both embarrassed and angry, explaining that the bishop in his congregation did not permit his people to read fiction. What irony! And what a marvelous compliment to an author. That’s precisely the kind of authenticity I have been striving for in the Amish-Country Mysteries: to portray Amish culture so thoroughly and accurately that even the practitioners themselves will think it is real.
Paul (P.L.) Gaus lives with his wife, Madonna, in Wooster, Ohio, just a few miles north of Holmes County, where the world’s largest and most varied settlement of Amish and Mennonite people is found. His Web site is www.plgaus.com, and his blog commentary about Holmes County can be read at amish-countryjournal.blogspot.com.