In the insular and often misunderstood Amish community, novelist Linda Castillo found a perfect setting for mystery and murder.
“What better way to peel away the layers of this fascinating culture than to write a crime story?” she said about the beginnings of her popular series set in Ohio’s Amish Country.
Nine books later, Castillo’s small-town police Chief Kate Burkholder is still finding new terrifying mysteries to untangle in the fictional hamlet of Painters Mill. Its setting is Holmes County, Ohio, the real-life home of the world’s largest Amish community.
Castillo, who will be the guest speaker at The Sacramento Bee Book Club on Thursday, July 20, keeps learning more about the Amish and her protagonist.
“In Holmes County, they cling to the old traditional ways,” Castillo said in recent a phone interview. “They don’t interact a lot (with non-Amish). One thing appealed to me as a writer: They are a mystery I needed to learn more about.”
Castillo’s protagonist was raised Amish and left the fold as a teenager, only to return as a cop. As the local police chief, Burkholder tries to balance the needs of this unusual community with the outside world. Her past gives her a unique perspective.
“The Amish are right here in our own backyard, yet not many people know their culture, language or history,” Castillo said. “They’re sort of a closed society. Their first language is Pennsylvania Dutch, an old German dialect. We’re known as ‘the English.’ ”
In search of religious freedom, the Amish originally fled Switzerland in the early 1700s. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, they founded communities dedicated to preserving their traditions and old way of life. In recent years, their population has grown to more than 300,000.
But to outsiders, the Amish are an enigma. “We have a vague notion of a religious community whose members live on quaint farms, wear old-fashioned clothes, and get around via horse and buggy,” Castillo said.
How could anything bad happen in this bucolic world?
“Of course, in the world of crime fiction, it does,” Castillo said. “That juxtaposition of wholesome living versus evil appealed to me nearly as much as the notion of a cultural divide.”
Castillo’s not the first writer or movie maker to explore that dichotomy in Amish County. The most famous example is “Witness,” the 1985 thriller that gave Harrison Ford his only Oscar nomination. But Castillo has explored this genre like no one else.
Castillo’s latest thriller, “Down a Dark Road,” (Minotaur, $26.99, 292 pages), challenges Burkholder in unexpected ways. A convicted wife killer escapes prison and returns to Amish Country to take his five children hostage. Burkholder discovers the escapee is her own long-lost childhood friend who insists he was wrongfully convicted. Burkholder re-investigates his wife’s murder only to find an unspeakable secret.
“Thrilling!” proclaimed Publishers Weekly in its review. “Castillo skillfully sets the scene, compelling readers to fear the raging stream and sense the tension in a room.”
“Kate is a likeable cop and the Amish setting is infinitely fascinating,” wrote Library Journal.
“Murder in Amish Country has a certain added frisson,” wrote People magazine, “and Castillo’s the master of the genre.”
The New York Times best-selling author has more than 30 books to her credit including several successful romance novels. But it’s when she created Burkholder that her literary career really hit stride. “I realized my love was thrillers and mysteries,” she said. “At that point, I started thinking about Kate.”
Burkholder made her memorable debut in 2009’s “Sworn to Silence,” which brings the new police chief back to Amish Country where a serial killer raped and mutilated an Amish girl. The twist? Burkholder thought she killed him 16 years ago.
“Lovers of suspense will find no better novel to read this summer than ‘Sworn to Silence,’ a teeth-chattering debut thriller,” wrote USA Today.
“Sworn to Silence” became a 2013 TV movie, “An Amish Murder,” starring Neve Campbell as Kate.
“Kate Burkholder is braver than I’ll ever be,” Castillo said. “Kate is every strong woman I’ve ever known. One of her greatest attributes is also part of her downfall. She’s not perfect, and she knows she’s not perfect. ... She cares a little bit too much about things. As chief of police, she cares about the town and the Amish, but she’s still considered an outsider. All this makes Kate very interesting to me.”
Castillo rewrote her own career path when she became a novelist.
“I had a wonderful corporate job with Domino’s Pizza,” she recalled. “But I had a love of writing stories and creating characters ever since I was a kid. I wrote my first book at 13 years old; it was junior romantic suspense. But I come from a practical-minded Midwest family. Be a writer? That was not a parental preference. But I could never forget about writing.”
She started composing novels “while I was still at Domino’s,” Castillo said. “It took me 11 years to sell my first book to Harlequin.”
Although her early novels all featured romance, Castillo preferred to concentrate on plotting more than coupling, incorporating plenty of nail-biting chills. “In romantic suspense, you tend to concentrate on the relationship of the hero and heroine,” she said. “I was focused on the suspense. My editor told me I needed to stop killing people.”
Instead, she made it part of her specialty.
Castillo, who now lives in north Texas near Amarillo, grew up about two hours away from Holmes County in Northeast Ohio, home of more than 36,000 Amish. “I knew of them,” she said. “As a teenager, I didn’t think they were particularly interesting.”
Then, she took a trip home to Ohio with her sister in 2005.
“I had been thinking about a new book and a new character for a long while,” Castillo said. “I had been writing romantic suspense for many years. In order to write a break-out book, you need to write something to set you apart from the rest of the pack.
“My brother-in-law grew up in Amish Country in a 200-year-old farmhouse,” she continued. “We were in Holmes County and it was freezing; six inches of snow on the ground. Then, I saw an Amish man driving a buggy down the road, like a moment out of another time. At this point, I realized I found my setting.”
Now, she returns to Amish Country often for more research and to absorb as much as possible. In turn, some members of the Amish community have reached out to her.
“After ‘Sworn to Silence’ came out, I was on tour (to promote the book) and spoke at a library in a town of 6,000 people,” Castillo said. “A hundred people turned out for the event. There’s a lot of violence in the book; I was worried about their reaction.”
Instead of voicing complaints, members of her audience offered Castillo a tour of the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin, Ohio. That included the “Behalt Cyclorama,” a 245-foot mural in the round depicting centuries of Amish history.
“It’s been an incredible learning experience for me,” she said. “When I first started, I had some preconceived notions in my mind. I had no idea about their history and persecution, how much they had suffered.
“I’ve learned a lot about the Amish since that first book,” Castillo added. “It’s become increasingly important for me to depict the culture correctly without stereotype. The Amish may refer to themselves as the Plain People, but the culture is as rich as the land upon which they’ve lived for nearly 300 years.”
SACRAMENTO BEE BOOK CLUB
Mystery novelist Linda Castillo will appear for The Sacramento Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 20, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento.
Tickets to the event are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $10 for students and $25 for general admission. Buy tickets at www.sacbee.com/events. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free. Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling “Down a Dark Road” (Minotaur, $26.99, 292 pages) for 30 percent off the list price.
All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.
“Down a Dark Road” also will be offered for a 30 percent discount through July 20 at these bookstores: in the Sacramento area at the five Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.