The Magazine

Simple Devices

Famished for good mysteries? Try an Amish thriller.

Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By JOE QUEENAN
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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.