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A most unlikely genre: Amish crime thrillers

A chemistry professor writes mysteries set among his reclusive neighbors.

Paul L. Gaus teaches chemistry at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, but for the past quarter century he's also traveled Amish backroads, making friends while collecting stories and anecdotes. Gaus is an Amishlieben, or friend of the Amish, who's lived side by side with the Plain People of Holmes County, Ohio, long enough to understand and respect their traditions and values.

Finally, he set about writing a series of mysteries about the Plain People, hoping to illustrate and explain the qualities which set them apart from their non-Amish, or English, neighbors.

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"Since I know so much about the Amish I decided to write mysteries about them," says Gaus. "To illuminate as much of their practices and beliefs as I could."

His first mystery, "Blood of the Prodigal," dealt with repentance and forgiveness within the Amish community. His second, "Broken English," addressed pacifism and revenge.

Greed and avarice were examined in "Clouds without Rain," and his fourth book, "Cast a Blue Shadow," exposed child abuse in closed Amish society.

A plot hinging on Rumspringa

Gaus's newest mystery, "A Prayer for the Night," captures the tensions of an Amish tradition called "Rumspringa," a rite of passage when 16-year-olds are set free from church rules and allowed to experiment with technology, sex, drugs, and alcohol. Large Amish communities like the one in Holmes County are anonymous enough to support a youth subculture where Rumspringa may spawn adolescent gangs, some more rebellious than others.

In "A Prayer for the Night," Amish teens on Rumspringa stretch the limits of their parents' religion to the breaking point. The murder of one Amish youth, John Schlabaugh, and the abduction of another, Sara Yoder, challenge Pastor Cal Troyer, Professor Michael Brandon, and Sheriff Bruce Robertson to confront a communal fear that their young people are hopelessly lost.

Working together, the trio hope to restore the shattered Amish community by breaking a countywide drug ring. Brandon also struggles with Amish reluctance to let the law help them solve their problems.

Gaus knows how Rumspringa torments today's Amish parents, whose first duty is to prepare their children for heaven.

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The custom of letting teenagers leave their cloistered lifestyle and explore the world for months or even years survives because Amish believe only informed adults can accept Christ and be baptized, and the unbaptized cannot enter heaven.

"The Rumspringa practice has gotten considerably worse in the last 25 years," says Gaus. "It used to be that a fellow or girl might take a bottle of plum wine out of the basement and share it with friends. Now it's more likely that teens will dress in English clothes, get their car out of a neighbor's barn, and head to a town bar for the weekend. Several Amish bishops have gone to the Holmes County sheriff, asking if he can't stop the wildness of their teenagers. 'A Prayer in the Night' is certainly an extreme example, but it's by no means unthinkable."

Gaus says his intended readers are English people in America who want to know more about Amish life and faith, but Plain People enjoy his books, too.

Some of his Amish friends are astonished by how closely he depicts the reality of their everyday life, and bookmobiles in rural Holmes County can't keep his mysteries on the shelf.

"One Amish fellow read two of my stories and concluded they were histories of real events, not fiction," says Gaus. "He became quite upset when told the mysteries were fictional, because the bishop of his sect does not permit people to read fiction."

An outsider's view of Amish life

Gaus captures the steady cadence of Amish life and offers a vivid depiction of both the world that they live in and their particular vision of human experience, as hinted at in the following excerpt, which gave birth to the book's title. It occurs just as the police launch an urgent attempt to rescue kidnapped Sara Yoder.

"The cricket song in the pastures was strident, the low, murmuring notes of the cattle mixed in. The yellow flicker of lantern light shined from several windows in the big house. Cal stood on the lawn between the house and barn, sought out the stars overhead. Spoke a prayer for the night."

Cal prays not only for Sara's release from kidnappers, but also for her release from the apparent freedom of an English lifestyle, with its alluring glitter and gadgets, and its boasted claim to nurture her uniqueness.

He knew she believed Amish were all the same, and feared that returning home would smother her individuality. After her rescue, he helped her dispel this fear. He asked if she knew why the Bible says God counts the hairs on our heads. He said it's not really about hair, but God's ability to know us as individuals.

"He leaned closer, took her hands into his, and said, 'You alone are Sara. No one will ever be able to change that. To dress alike, and act alike, and live alike, as Amish, does not hold the power to diminish you. Not in my eyes. Not in God's.' "

David Horn was until recently a columnist for the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind.