Famished for good mysteries? Try an Amish thriller.
Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By JOE QUEENAN
Like many whodunit fans, I made a fatal error at the outset of my reading career. I devoured Edgar Allan Poe, Sherlock Holmes, the Father Brown stories, the best of Agatha Christie, and scores of books featuring Georges Simenon's indefatigable Inspector Maigret. By the age of 30, I had polished off most of the masterpieces in the genre; as a result, I have spent my adult life working my way back down the slopes below the mountaintops, scavenging for material that is even vaguely comparable to the work of the titans.
Inevitably, my quest led me to such outstanding writers as P. D. James, Rex Stout, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Ellery Queen (actually, two writers sharing one pen name), and more recently, Ruth Rendell and Michael Connelly. I have also enjoyed James Crumley, Tony Hillerman, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and James Lee Burke. Still, over the years, I wearied of murders taking place in bucolic Little Badminton, the satanic City of Angels, or the Bronx. For me, it was no longer enough for a mystery to be exciting; to work, it had to take place in some exotic, unfamiliar, or bizarre place.
Initially, my fascination with mysteries set in foreign climes led me to Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series in Edinburgh, which led me to Val McDermid's "Tartan Noir" mysteries in northern England, which led me to assorted mysteries set in rural Ireland. But because these stories all took place in English-speaking countries, it reinforced the sensation that I had never really left home. Gradually, I meandered over to France (Fred Vargas), up to Amsterdam (Janwillem van de Wetering), and down to Italy (Michael Dibdin, Andrea Camilleri). Yet I did not truly feel that I was busting out of the cultural straitjacket until a bookseller in Philadelphia suggested that I take a crack at the Swedish novelist Henning Mankell. Mankell's rumpled, laconic, indomitable Kurt Wallander, a Nordic Maigret, is the star of nine outstanding mysteries. Mankell, almost singlehandedly, has triggered a Scandinavian mystery boom in this country.
Well, a boomlet.
So taken was I by Mankell's work that I branched out and tried Kjell Eriksson, Hakan Nesser, Ake Edwardson, and the superb Stieg Larsson, then backtracked to Mankell's compatriots Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (The Laughing Policeman), who made a big splash in the 1970s. Then I slipped across the border to Norway to read Karin Fossum, mistress of darkness. Inevitably, this led me to Iceland, site of eight novels by the gifted Arnaldur Indridason.
Yet once again, as soon as I had polished off the best writers in this genre, I began to tire of mysteries that took place in foreign countries. There was nothing special about Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett's police procedurals set in Barcelona; Patricia Hall's Yorkshire mysteries could have taken place anywhere. Cara Black's French thGooglrillers were neither particularly gripping nor particularly evocative of Paris, and she wasn't much of a writer. Alexander McCall Smith's good-natured Ladies' Detective Agency series weren't dark enough for me; only their Botswanan setting set them apart. The exotic thriller was starting to seem like a scam, a ploy to make a humdrum tale seem more compelling, when the only thing going for it was that it was set in some unusual place.
It was at this point that I stumbled upon P. L. Gaus's Ohio Amish Mystery series. Before I found them at my local library, I had no idea that such a genre existed. The Ohio Amish series are set in Holmes County, a heavily Amish community south of Cleveland. The central character is Michael Branden, a professor of Civil War history at Millersburg College who works in some strange adjunct capacity as a deputy for the Holmes County police force. Branden is also founder of the college's Museum of Battlefield Firearms, as well he should be. With help from such recurring characters as Pastor Caleb Troyer, Sheriff Bruce Robertson, and coroner Missy Taggert, Branden runs to earth all sorts of scum who prey on the Amish.
The books involve everything from butchered Amish dwarves to mute Mennonite child-abuse victims to anti-Amish land-grabs involving reverse leases. Not to mention cops going undercover in beards and buggies so they can nail Amish teenage delinquents gussied up in rubber goat's head masks who are flirting with Satanism during their wild Rumschpringe period when they are encouraged to get wasted and consort with trailer trash out in the straight world before packing it in and becoming full-fledged Amish.
When I read Blood of the Prodigal, my first Ohio Amish whodunit, I thought the whole idea was a put-on. After all, the author was identified as a professor of chemistry at the College of Wooster, and when I read that the book had been published by Ohio University Press, it reinforced my suspicion that the Ohio Amish series was a send-up concocted by some scampish creative writing professor. It all seemed a bit fishy. But then a friend reminded me that there is a whole series of mysteries involving the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. So this might be legit after all.
I am not making the argument that Gaus is in a class with the great mystery writers, past or present. The books are written in workmanlike fashion; the plots are compelling, not mesmerizing. Gaus lacks the gravitas of Mankell, the ingenuity of Indridason, the intensity of Larsson, the impudent wit of Camilleri. In no sense can Branden be viewed as a Buckeye Father Brown, much less a rival to the denizen of 221B Baker Street. But the fact that these mysteries take place in the Amish hinterland of Ohio confers upon them an aura of congenial weirdness no other mystery writer I know of can approach.
Not long ago the Wall Street Journal ran a story about a related genre: the Amish bodice-ripper. Obviously, this Rumschpringe thing is spreading. Then I found out that Tamar Myers, a woman of Amish background, has written more than a dozen tongue-in-cheek, Pennsylvania Dutch murder mysteries complete with recipes. By that point, the whole Amish thing seems to be turning into just another gimmick. Which is why I'm checking out. My once insatiable appetite for mysteries set in Botswana, Bangkok, Tokyo, and the Carpathians has now been satisfied.
I'm going to go back and dance with the one that brung me. I'm going back to the peerless Harlan Coben, whose gripping thrillers are set in the wilds of New Jersey. Seacacus and Totowa are as exotic as I need things to get.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.