WOOSTER, Ohio – If the phrase “Amish murder mystery” strikes most readers as an oxymoron, “Amish murder mystery written by a chemistry professor” plumbs still murkier regions of improbability.
But Paul Gaus, chairman of the chemistry department at The College of Wooster, has just published his fourth mystery set in Ohio’s Amish community, Cast a Blue Shadow.
The New York Times calls Gaus “a sensitive storyteller who matches his cadences to the measured pace of Amish life…”
A second career. Gaus’ improbable journey from chemistry professor to mystery writer began in the mid-1980s.
He was teaching a first-year seminar at the college on issues of justice, liberty, and how some cultures struggle to maintain a distinctive identity within the larger American society.
Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, set on a huge Navajo reservation in the Southwest, formed a part of the reading list.
Gaus called the Edgar Award-winning writer, who had just retired from the journalism department of the University of New Mexico, to tell him how useful his books had been in the seminar.
Give it a try. Hillerman invited Gaus to come out to New Mexico and visit, which he did in 1990.
Gaus, the co-author of a widely used chemistry text, and Hillerman, the mystery writer, talked about the differences between science writing and fiction.
Hillerman encouraged Gaus to give fiction a try.
“I realized I knew as much about Amish culture as he knew about Navajo,” Gaus said.
Right at home. Holmes County, just south of Wooster, is home to the largest Amish and Mennonite population in the world.
So in the autumn of 1993, he began writing what would become his first novel, Blood of the Prodigal. It was published by Ohio University Press in 1999. Two more novels followed.
Together, Gaus says, they have generated “enough royalties to take pleasant note of” but not enough to tempt him to give up his 25-year career as a chemistry professor
It’s culture. Gaus sees the books not simply as mysteries but as a way to illuminate different aspects of Amish culture.
They also have proved popular with the Amish themselves.
“The people who drive the bookmobiles in Holmes County say they can’t keep enough copies on the shelves,” Gaus said.
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