The new guy in the town of Millersburg, one David Hawkins, wasn't just a U.S. Army veteran, but a skilled sniper and Special Forces operative.
Then his only daughter was murdered by an ex-con, followed by another murder clearly linked to the case. Obviously, the sheriff had to investigate whether the shattered father was planning his revenge before the ex-con's trial.
That's the set up for "Broken English," one of nine murder mysteries -- so far -- by author P.L. Gaus. But there's a twist, because these stories unfold in Holmes County, Ohio, in Amish country. Hawkins has already vowed to live as a pacifist, while preparing to marry an Amish woman and embrace her faith.
In these books -- "Whiskers of the Lion" arrived this spring -- the fine points of Amish doctrine and culture provide more than colorful frames around the plots, but add crucial details that complicate them.
To be blunt: The Amish believe it's spiritually dangerous to mix with "English" locals, even if that means not cooperating with authorities investigating crimes in which their loved ones are the victims, stressed Gaus, reached by telephone. What if the state's idea of justice is little more than sinful human vengeance?
"I knew when I started writing that this would be the hinge of what I do in these stories. I had to take their beliefs very seriously," said Gaus, a retired college chemistry professor who has lived in Wooster, Ohio, for 38 years. "It's not just that they hold themselves apart, but that they simply cannot cooperate with the state -- due to convictions at the heart of their faith, their culture, their daily lives."
Many hymns used in Amish worship still contain vivid references to persecution in Europe, forming a bridge between lessons of the past and modern threats to their families. "That memory of martyrdom is very real. … They still don't trust police, government officials and other legal authorities," said Gaus.
Amish life is further complicated by myriad internal splits over the centuries. One Gaus character notes: "At the simplest level ... we have the most conservative Old Order Amish, what you might call House Amish, then Beachy Amish, Church Amish, Swiss Mennonites, Old Mennonites, Wisler Mennonites, Mennonites, New Amish or Apostolic Christian, Reformed Mennonites, and most liberal, Oak Grove Mennonites up in Wayne County."
New schisms keep happening. There are Amish who use pins to fasten their clothing, while rejecting those who accept buttons. Some hide cellphones, while others have telephone lines to sheds outside their houses. Splits may form over issues as innocent as glass windows in horse-drawn buggies or as serious as whether to seek professional help for genetic disorders or mental illness.
The modern world keeps crossing their borders. In one Gaus mystery, Amish girls are forced -- using death threats against family members -- to carry suitcases of cocaine while traveling on buses from Florida. In another, a prodigal who fled his Amish family repents and begins the return journey, only to be murdered in sight of home by someone linked to the sins of his wild years. In another, an Amish entrepreneur schemes to sell land to greedy mega-mansion developers, with tragic results.
After years of observations, Gaus remains fascinated by another mystery: Why so many Americans view Amish country as tourism territory. There is something seductive about fresh breads, jams, quilts, kitchen gadgets and wooden plaques containing prayers or scriptures that prompt, as he writes in one novel, impulsive purchases based on a "down-home feeling of centeredness and belonging."
Some people go further, grabbing $500,000 dream homes, on five-acre plots, overlooking lovely Amish farms.
The "English" are seeking peace -- for sale. It seems, explained Gaus, that they "think visiting Amish country allows them to have a connection to that simplicity of life they want to believe is somewhere in their past. They think there was a time when they shared some of these traditional values and elements of faith and they are fascinated by what they see. They wish they could go back -- but not really. …
"It's like you can visit the Amish and connect with a more righteous way of life. … It feels good to look at it for a few days and think, 'Isn't it good that people like this still exist somewhere?' "