Paul Gaus: Tony Hillerman of the Amish
Paul Gaus's Amish murder mysteries offer non-Amish a window into a mysterious but appealing society.
Amish fiction? Don't laugh – it's been a hot growth category for some time now. It seems that non-Amish readers are particularly eager to enjoy fiction that offers glimpses of the sect's simplicity, conviction, and stress on forgiveness.Skip to next paragraph
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Amish romance stories are perhaps most common, but Paul Gaus, a retired chemistry professor, has been writing Amish murder mysteries since 1997, set in the Amish country of Holmes County, Ohio, where he lives. Originally published by Ohio University Press, Gaus's books are now being republished by Penguin as “The Amish Mystery Series.” The first title in the series, "Blood of the Prodigal," which addresses shunning – the Amish practice of exiling disobedient church members into the mainstream society – was released last month. All six of Gaus's books will be released by Penguin, one a month, from now through February. Monitor contributor Brendan Pelsue spoke with Gaus recently.
How did you start writing Amish mystery novels?
I have lived in Wooster, Ohio, for over 33 years. Just south of us, in Holmes County, we have the largest Amish settlement of any location in the world. While I was teaching chemistry, I took an interest in writing about Amish society. And I always enjoyed mystery novels. So I took a trip out to New Mexico to meet with Tony Hillerman, who wrote many novels about Navajo culture. And I thought that I would write mystery novels like Tony Hillerman does, but I would set them among the Amish of Holmes county.
How do you go about choosing your stories?
"Blood of the Prodigal," like all of my stories, it is written to illuminate Scripture. In particular, its written to illuminate one of the Biblical Scriptures on which Amish people base their lifestyle. A key Scripture for "Blood of the Prodigal" is the 139th Psalm. Many of the interactions in "Blood of the Prodigal" are based on transactions of repentance and forgiveness. There’s comfort in the 139th Psalm for people who face repentance. That’s what an [Amish] bishop tries to do with shunning – restore a person to a community of faith.
So is there a spiritual component for you in writing these books?
There is. I am a Christian. I am a Christian, and I understand Scripture the way Amish people do. I don’t practice Amish lifestyles in any way. But I thought it would be greatly important to show with allegories and story lines how Amish people use Scripture to order their lives and guide their lifestyle choices. They live the way they do because they think that’s what the Scriptures teach. And my books have always been Scriptural allegories for Amish life.
For instance, in “Broken English,” the theme of that story was Amish pacifism and non-resistance. "Broken English" is the story of a man who was tempted to seek vengeance for the death of his daughter. He must decide whether he will live according to his pacifist convictions, or kill the man who murdered his daughter. It, too, was based in Scripture.
I find new understandings of Scripture every time I read them. Writing about them makes that even doubly so.
Who is your readership?