Review Essay: P. L. Gaus’s Ohio Amish Mystery Series

Blood of the Prodigal (1999), Broken English (2000), Clouds Without Rain (2001), Cast a Blue Shadow (2003), A Prayer for the Night (2006), Separate from the World (2008).

-- Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

P.L. Gaus

P.L. Gaus

You might be forgiven for thinking that the biggest mystery about the Amish is how they get such outstanding cell phone reception in their rural enclaves. But improbable as it may seem, Amish communities have emerged as the setting for a number of well-established crime series over the last decade. This phenomenon is part of a broader trend, the decade-long explosion of Amish-themed fiction across a number of genres. Amish romance novels have been a particularly strong commercial success, and the shelves of Christian and secular bookstores alike are bursting with stories of innocent young people finding true love against wholesome backdrops and long odds. At a moment when terror, war, scandal and disaster dominate the media landscape, it is not surprising that readers have found an immense appetite for stories about a people associated in the popular imagination with the virtues of simplicity, honesty and community.

But if Amish romances are a kind of Shakespearian comedy for the twenty-first century, an exploration of an American Arcadia, the new crop of Amish mysteries remind us that there is always a snake in the garden. Every community contains the threat of its disruption or dissolution, especially self-consciously religious or utopian ones. At heart, crime novels are about the brokenness and fragility of the human condition, and sometimes those who have committed themselves to high ideals prove the most vulnerable. Amish crime fiction offers the chance to observe the sacred and the profane, the redeemed and the fallen, colliding at close quarters and mixing in ways that are by equal turns illuminating and disturbing.

In order to lighten the mood, several notable Amish-themed mystery series leaven the proceedings with humor or trade on the eccentricities of character and premise. Tamar Myers keeps tongue firmly in cheek in more than a dozen novels with titles such as Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth and No Use Dying Over Spilled Milk, as does Barbara Workinger in her books In Dutch Again and Shoofly Pie to Die. These novels read like Agatha Christie crossed with Lake Wobegon and set in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (with recipes included). Fair enough, but the books focus as much on the spun sugar confection of the imagined worlds they create as they do on investigating the texture of actual Amish life.

In his Ohio Amish Mystery series, P. L. Gaus sets out with a different intent. Hewing to the somber side of the genre, his mysteries are best described as psychological thrillers set in rural Holmes County, Ohio. Gaus has been exploring this territory for the last decade, publishing six Ohio Amish Mysteries to date, with a seventh forthcoming. The series eschews punning titles and stubbornly resists depicting the Amish or their Mennonite neighbors as cute, cuddly or quaint. The opening lines of Blood of the Prodigal illustrate the way Gaus relies on simple, straightforward diction to sketch the world of an Amish boy in quick, sure strokes:

Like all Amish children of ten, Jeremiah Miller had known his share of sunrises. Morning chores had long since taken care of that. Every day brought the same duties. His grandfather had made it clear. Children were for working. Life was supposed to be hard. Generally, for Jeremiah, it was.

But lately, Jeremiah had discovered something new and wonderful in his dawn chores. Something exhilarating. Also a bit frightening, because he suspected it was forbidden. It was so simple, he thought, who could object? If he arose before the others and slipped out quietly, he could be alone, drawn awake early by the allure of a solitary Ohio dawn. (1)

Gaus sets out the personalities and experiences of two characters while also linking their ideas and feelings to the tensions that inhere in the larger edifice of Amish tradition. He does so with a light touch. We feel Jeremiah’s uncertainty about whether his emerging sense of self will be able to negotiate the demands of duty and conformity, but we—like the child—are not sure which set of values takes precedence in this moral universe. Before the chapter is over, we find out that the consequences of this conflict in young Jeremiah’s life will be immense.

This tension, drawn as it is from an admirable restraint, is typical of Gaus and derives from the way he places his authorial voice—and thereby the reader—at a careful distance from the Amish and their culture. History professor Michael Braden, the protagonist and chief investigator in these books, is clearly an outsider: not Amish, not ex-Amish, not Mennonite. Even though he eventually becomes a trusted friend of the Gemeinde, or church community, he is never privy to the hidden heart of Amish culture. He does not participate in the interior life of the community; rather, he takes pains to listen and observe.

His posture in the scene where he is interviewing Jeremiah’s grandfather, a strict bishop, is typical: “Branden leaned forward from the buckboard seat, rested his elbows on his knees, laced his long fingers together, and studied the backs of his hands, listening, and indicating that he would listen as long as the bishop should need” (20). Like his protagonist, Gaus is content to admire the Amish from the outside rather than speak on behalf of the group. Indeed, one of the series’ best qualities is the way that Gaus resists the temptation to turn his Amish characters into ventriloquist’s dummies, stock characters or pop-cultural caricatures of Amish thought.

Professor Branden, the interested outsider, owes a lot to Gaus’s own biography. Gaus spent his academic career as a professor of chemistry at the College of Wooster, twenty miles away from the community his novels explore. The Millersburg College of the books, while clearly modeled after Wooster in key respects, is strictly imaginary. Both author and protagonist find their calling outside of their specialized academic training. Braden is a Civil War historian who moonlights as an amateur detective and investigator, while Gaus is a physical scientist who has nevertheless pursued a sociological interest in “alternative cultures” in the United States. For many years, Gaus taught a college seminar on this topic, conducting scholarly explorations of subcultural groups ranging from emergent forms of Islam among African Americans, to the apocalyptic Branch Davidians, and of course, to the Amish of his own region.

Given this background, it is not surprising that Gaus often seems as much interested in sociological and theological description of the Amish as he does in a rehearsal of the conventions of the classic mystery or thriller. Like his acknowledged inspiration and mentor, Tony Hillerman, Gaus writes detective novels in order to explore and interpret the culture in which they are embedded for an audience of mainstream readers. Gaus essentially offers a literary tour through Amish culture, a virtual trip through the back roads of Amish country. In fact Gaus often seems to take this brief literally. His books are filled with minute descriptions of physical settings, all of which are true to their actual locations in real life. In his acknowledgements, he even instructs readers on the best place to obtain an accurate Holmes County survey map. To follow along, as they read perhaps, putting pushpins on a corkboard as in a police procedural? Or just to plan the next family weekend getaway to Amish country? He does everything but provide the GPS coordinates of each scene. And actually, in A Prayer for the Night, he does provide the GPS coordinates.

These mile-by-mile descriptions intentionally slow the reader down. When he first meets Jeremiah’s grandfather in Blood of the Prodigal, we find out that “Branden rode with the bishop on the plain buckboard seat of the buggy, through the remotest Amish valleys of Holmes County. From Becks Mills, they took a circuitous route out onto 83, north to Township Road 122, dropped through Panther Valley, and travelled south on Route 58” (18). Like Branden, the reader must ride in silence and prepare to listen. Rather than being the kind of obnoxious and oblivious tourists who represent a threat to the Amish community—“gawking city English, with their billfolds full of money” (24)—Gaus’s readers are invited to be contemplative, to absorb the small, quotidian details of rural life as somehow being the key to understanding the nuances of the moral dilemmas faced by his characters.

Predictably, there is plenty of debate on the message boards of Gaus’s website and the reader reviews sections of online booksellers about how much the professor gets right. Most of the time, from his precise descriptions of Holmes County geography to his detailed depictions of Amish dress and custom, Gaus is very near the mark. He even dares the occasional synoptic exposition of the myriad Anabaptist groups, though, as one character in Cast a Blue Shadow observes, “It’d take a trained sociologist years to sort out the differences, and, and then it’d probably be wrong” (176). Fair enough. Nonetheless, in contrast to other high profile fictional versions of Amish life, Gaus’s portrayal strikes very few false notes. To put the comparison in filmic terms, the Ohio Amish Mysteries are more Witness than Kingpin.

Ironically, perhaps, Gaus’s descriptions of Amish life often seem more convincing and nuanced than the portrayals of his non-Amish protagonists and the other characters who populate this fictional world. In the case of the criminals and murderers in Gaus’s tales, this is hardly problematic. Indeed, crime fiction is well known for the flat opacity of its characters—the motivations and inner thoughts of the guilty must be concealed so as not to give away the secret of whodunit. But it becomes more of a problem when the cast of recurring characters—Branden’s wife Caroline and his longtime friends, Church of Christ pastor Cal Troyer and the Holmes County Sheriff Bruce Robinson—are uncannily the same from outing to outing.

Seemingly unfazed by the massive volume of vicious and cruel behavior they witness, they are not characters who ever seem in danger of losing their grip on their beliefs—the same convictions that they held at the outset of the series. In the episodic crises that serve as the climaxes for each installment, these characters find themselves in terrible physical peril, but their inner lives, their emotional and psychic coherence rarely seems endangered. Indeed, most of their internal struggles, their decisive moments of change and development, happen offstage, in the past or between books. The work they do in each novel is tightly focused on solving the case at hand; they don’t waste a lot of energy on self-doubt and rarely suffer from a lack of clarity or purpose.

But readers have compensation for that flatness within some of the characters, because the real moral drama in these books is structural. It lies in the way the problem of violence is handled, the way it mushrooms into the biggest of all possible questions: of how we face the world and deal with its complications and uncertainties. Because besides dress and landscape, the other thing about which Gaus exercises manic accuracy is the details of weapons and firearms, especially handguns. We always know what manner of sidearm his protagonists are carrying into a tight situation—usually, they are carrying more than one. Invariably, the Amish who are being protected object. They explicitly reject “English justice.” Why, then, do Gaus’s protagonists insist on providing it? All of the books end with the professor or one of his associates in a violent showdown with the perpetrator of the book’s crimes. Why, despite his respectful endorsement of Amish thought on the subject of violence, does Branden never rethink his own beliefs about good and evil in the aftermath of these events?

The novels seem to think through these issues outside of Branden the character. The books themselves are a long attempt to wrestle with the question of whether the Amish need the world more than the world needs the Amish, or vice versa. This, after all, is the great subject of contemporary fiction: How are we to cope with the world around us when it seems increasingly loud, fractious and violent? The Amish—at least in popular fiction—seem to show that resistance is at least possible, and they provide an ideal screen upon which to project our desire to return to simpler forms of life and community. As Gaus’s Amish bishop puts it at the beginning of the first book, “That was the whole point. Look the same, live the same, stay the same. To live every day in tranquility” (6). That ideal is constantly under siege by the encroaching complications of the world. The violent crimes at the heart of these stories substitute for the threat modernity itself poses, i.e., to murder an entire way of life.

If contemporary people are often afflicted with a profound but nebulous sense of guilt, murder mysteries stage our deep questions about human nature and the self: How well can we really know ourselves? Who is guilty? Who is innocent? And how can we be sure? Does the desire leave us as guilty as the action? The Amish in these books serve as both our idealized selves and as the foils for our own experience of moral ambiguity. The whole point of the series is to treat the Amish as the real mystery to be solved, as both evidence and sign that the problems of modern life have a solution, if only we can read them successfully.

The forthcoming, seventh novel in the series will reportedly be about an outsider who becomes intrigued by the Amish and wants to join—a theme Gaus has already treated inBroken English. On his blog, the author notes how vanishingly rare successful non-to Amish conversions are. As slim perhaps, as the chances of satisfactorily penetrating the riddle of the place of the Amish in modernity. Gaus clearly idealizes Amish life at times, but they are certainly not immune from anything—the plot of every book in the series seeks to prove this point. At the end of Separate from the World, one character asserts that it is a basic fact of the modern world that “the monsters are everywhere. There is no changing. No repenting. We are what we are made to be. Nobody changes. Nobody has a choice.” Branden replies, “The Amish are innocent… all of them” (188).

Gaus’s novels invite us to ponder what this might mean, for the Amish and non-Amish alike, and whether, in the end, we agree with the professor.

About the Author

Kyle Schlabach

Kyle Schlabach (Goshen College ’96) is Assistant Professor of English at Goshen College. While he specializes in nineteenth-century Irish and British literature, he has also taught and published on subjects ranging from science fiction and detective novels to the status of memory and trauma in public history. Kyle is married to Jessica Baldanzi, who reviewed Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress in the September 2009 issue of this journal. Their son Thomas Nicholas was born in 2009.