Pastor Caleb Troyer
(creator: P L Gaus)

P L Gaus
Pastor Caleb ("Cal") Troyer is the pastor at the Church of Christ , a "little independent church" in the sleepy college town of Millersburg, Ohio. He is "a short man with a round, leathered face that marked him in those parts of Ohio as likely descended from the Amish (his grandfather had left an Amish sect over 50 years before). He had flowing white hair, pulled back and tied off in a ponytail, and a heavy, tangled white beard with no hint whatsoever of its original color." When we first meet him, "he was dressed in workman's blue jeans and a denim shirt. He had a carpenter's belt strapped to his waist." He has "powerful arms and large carpenter's hands". He "was a preacher, but he earned his way in life as a carpenter".

An oddity of the books is that there is another Troyer, an Ellie Troyer, a woman who works in the sheriff's office but seems to be no relation. But perhaps this is explained in the acknowledgments at the start of Clouds Without Rain, where a Pastor Dean Troyer and Eli Troyer are among those described as "good friends, able advisors".

Cal had grown up in the district, fishing and hunting as a boy with his good friends Michael Branden (now Professor of Civil War History at Millersburg College and also "one of the nation's leading experts on period firearms") and Bruce (now Sheriff Bruce Anderson), with whom he still works closely on solving crimes. His own life had suddenly changed when his parents had been killed in a highway crash, and he felt he had been called to the ministry. After service in Vietnam as a stretcher bearer (he had been a conscientious objector), he had returned to his home town where the Amish people of Holmes County, Ohio, had come to know and trust him.

P(aul) L Gaus (1949 - ) grew up in Delaware, Ohio and received his B.S. from Miami University in 1971 and his Ph.D. from Duke University in 1975. He came to the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1977, where he became Professor of Chemistry. Now retired, he and his wife Madonna live on the northern fringe of the world's largest Amish settlement. He is an Amishlieben, or friend of the Amish, who has grown to understand and respect their traditions and values. "Since I know so much about the Amish I decided to write mysteries about them, to illuminate as much of their practices and beliefs as I could." As a certified firearms instructor, he gets his weapon details right too.

Blood of the Prodigal (1999)
Blood of the Prodigal gets the series off to a good start with
the story of the kidnapping of Jeremiah, a ten-year-old Amish boy, possibly by his father who had broken away from his strict Old Order Amish background. The boy's grandfather, the Amish bishop, appeals for help to Pastor Caleb Troyer, but Troyer has soon to go off to a mission conference, so passes him on to his friend, Professor Michael Branden, Then when the kidnapping leads to murder, their mercurial old friend Sheriff Bruce Robertson enters the investigation.

Cal is away for most of the story, and the detecting is left to Michael Branden. But the strength of the book is in its handling of the Amish background where "children were for working. Life was supposed to be hard. Generally, for Jeremiah, it was". Even the bishop was "no different in dress and demeanor than any Amish man ... Look the same, live the same, stay the same. To live every day in tranquillity". The author's sympathy with the Amish lifestyle shines through.

Indeed Branden may well have other similarities with the author, who is also a professor, and fond of fishing. When Branden is away fishing, nothing of his "academic life could reach into his mind. Neither the petty politics of academia nor the inflated egos of his colleagues. No pressure from the administration for speeches to rich alumni groups. No endowment headaches. No manuscripts to review. No campus mail. No committees." Just a kidnapping then a murder to solve.

The plot is not always very gripping, especially when it gets away from the Amish setting, but the characters are always interesting and it is all very well-written.

Broken English (2000)
Broken English takes place a year after the previous story. There is a strong start, involving the vicious murder of a woman at the hands of an itinerant ex-convict. When a local reporter ends up dead as well, with the convict already behind bars, suspicion falls on David Hawkins, father of the first victim. But Hawkins is nowhere to be found, not even among the protective Amish community that had taken him in as one of its own, despite his mysterious past . Could it be true that he had once served in Army Special Forces? Once again, it is Professor Michael Branden who does the detecting. Pastor Cal Trower does the practical caring, and manic depressive Sheriff Bruce Robertson chases after the wrong man - so they have to be careful what they tell him. Together, though, they make quite a team, even if Robinson "was the most changeable and also the most personable man the professor had ever considered a friend. The only other one who could equal the rotund sheriff in steadfastness, loyalty and trustworthiness was Cal Troyer".

We learn more about the retiring Cal in this book: the way "he works on some Amish farms this time of year (harvest time). Says he likes to stay in touch with the land. To help friends he has in the Amish areas". And it turns out that he had been awarded a medal for bravery while he was in Vietnam.

The author puts his own firearms experience to good use with detailed and convincing descriptions of a secret arsenal of weapons, the working of a benchmark rifle range, and a climax that shows just what a sniper can achieve. There's an interesting description too of Amish joint barn-building, and an amusing episode involving Abigail, an Amish basket-seller dealing with the tourists who stop to inspect her wares. "She knew that a little broken English would help sales more than anything. When asked by two women tourists whether she gathered the reeds of her own land, she "counted back change and said a few words in Low German. Then, haltingly, she said, "We gather, yes".
"In an audible whisper, the veteran of four day-trips to Holmes County, explained to her neophyte friend, 'They don't speak much English.'
Abigail looked up and in Low German, said the equivalent of, 'We gather the reeds by post. They come in crates from an arts supply wholesaler out of New York City.'
The ladies smiled at the German, understanding nothing whatsoever of it, and they gathered up their baskets .... and drove off with the satisfying knowledge that they had garnered another secret of the mysterious Amish ways."

The author starts each chapter in this and all the other books with the date and time - but not the year. This does not seem all that necessary as the story unfolds in logical order. It certainly holds the interest.

Clouds Without Rain (2001)
Clouds Without Rain begins with a fatal accident involving several vehicles, including an Amish buggy and an eighteen-wheeler. Professor Branden grows suspicious about the true nature of the crash, especially when the trustee for a dead Amish man's estate disappears a few days later. Branden sets out to find a link between the crash and a spate of other disturbing events: Amish teenagers robbing buggies on dusty lanes, land swindles involving out-of-town developers, and a missing bank official.

Although Pastor Cal Troyer plays an important part in the story, it is again Branden who does the real detecting. He starts off by dressing as an Amishman and riding about in a buggy so as to entrap the robbers. He does not succeed in doing this, and in fact this part of the plot rather fizzles out. But as reserve deputy sheriff, he soon gets to grip with deternining the real cause of the crash in which his old friend Sheriff Bruce Robertson was badly burnt, and lies in a burns unit, seriously ill throughout the story.

One particularly interesting character is Bishop Andy R. Weaver who is determined to restore the old Amish ways before they disappear entirely: "It's the kids more than anything," he tells his old friend Cal. "They won't have farms the way things are going. Right now, there are at least nineteen of them working in shops or stores. Some restaurants, too ... They're not going to be able to farm. Probably not marry in any traditional way either." Indeed some people even "have secret phones in their barns" and there are even two families who own vans! Not to mention using electricity ... There's only one solution: "I've got to get the people back into the scriptures",

Branden himself seems to be getting more aggressive. Confronted with someone he had good reason to dislike, he "balanced a left fist in front of his chest, feet planted wide, smashed his right fist into Dobrowski's face, and stepped slowly to his truck, leaving Dobrowski on the blacktop, bent over and bleeding profusely from the nose". This does not really add to his appeal.

In the end, it is the Amish setting and the interplay of characters, and not the rather strained plot, that really matter.

Cast a Blue Shadow (2003)
Cast a Blue Shadow takes place a year and a half after the previous book. After the blizzard of an early winter, Martha Lehman, a college girl with a troubled past, appears curled up and bloodied outside the office of her childhood psychiatrist. Mute for many years as a child, she is once again not talking. The same morning, Juliet Favor, the particularly obnoxious wealthy mother of Martha's boyfriend, is found murdered in her mansion. Professor Michael Branden and Sheriff Bruce Robertson start on an investigation that threatens to tear apart the fabric of Millersburg College (which had been heavily dependent on Juliet's funding) and, as the blurb says, pits one professor against another.

Martha's family had been Amish before they had converted to Mennonite, helped by Cal Troyer - and Cal still does all he can to help her. The contrast between the Mennonite and Amish faiths is of some interest, when it is explained that the Amish "think the only way to heaven is to live a good life". But Mennonites (and Cal) believe "we are saved by grace through faith - 'not by works, so that no man can boast' ".

But this story is unlike the earlier ones in that the Amish are only marginally concerned. There is much more emphasis on Juliet's difficult family and on the college background, which, oddly enough from an author with so much college experience, is not all that interesting. But it is the infrequent Amish mention that holds the attention, as when six Amish girls and boys serve as waiters at Juliet's dinner party. "They were 'pin' Amish, from an Old Order sect that eschewed buttons, fastening their clothes with straight pins. They lived on a farm, across the road from a family of 'Knopfer', or button Amish, who held neither conversation nor fellowship with their backward neighbours".

Cal explains that "at the simplest level, and this wouldn't be at all considered to be a thorough listing, 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 .... It'd take a trained sociologist years to sort out the differences, and then it'd probably be wrong ... Other Amish groups have split over things as little as putting a side glass window in a buggy".

Branden can be quite an aggressive character. He tells another academic, "I don't see that I'd have any choice but to ruin you, Professor, if your sorry conduct has caused Ms. Lehman lasting harm". Then in a rather melodramatic climax, another professor commits suicide in his presence.

And the ending does not ring too true either, when rough and tough Sheriff Bruce Robertson gives his girlfriend, the coroner Missy, "a card with a single pink carnation on the cover" and takes her to an art gallery to show her his favorite paintings. "I love the way." he tells her, "Richter has put a thousand magnificent hues on the canvas, as if the facets of countless perfect diamonds had cast their brilliance in the paint. That's you, Missy. All wonderful color, brightness and life." The painting is "a masterpiece. Like you and me. You the thousand brilliant colors. Me the clumsy, gaudy smear. I Figure these paintings give me hope for us. Hope that I can find a way to overlay my life with yours, without quenching your beauty . That, perhaps, you wouldn't find it too odious to blend your life with mine .... That, perhaps, if art is ever glorious, and miracles still are possible, that you'd consent to be my wife."

Lacking much of the usual Amish background, it is the least interesting book in the series.

A Prayer for the Night (2006)
A Prayer for the Night is centered around the traditional Rumschpringe, when older teenagers are allowed the freedom to try out the English world, which usually means being allowed to go off into town at weekends. The author explains in his preface, "The practice of Rumschpringe is authentic, although rarely carried to the extremes depicted here". An Amish man says, "We Amish allow the Rumschspringe so that the children can learn what the English world is really like. So that they can see what they are tuning away from, if they choose to be Amish like us." Most of them usually decide to return.

The gang in this story, however, have got deeply involved in criminality and drugs, testing their parents' religion to breaking point. Professor Michael Branden investigates the murder of one teenager and the abduction of another. Along with Sheriff Bruce Anderson and Pastor Cal Troyer, who really knows and cares about the Amish, he traces their connection with a local drugs ring. It makes an action-packed and exciting story, with Gaus safely back on his own ground, dealing with the Amish background he knows so well.

All sorts of interesting facts about the Amish emerge. Some of them for example, will now use cell phones - but not ordinary ones. Th objection, Cal explains, is not so much to the phone as to the wire than connects it to the outer world. "If you hook your house up to a wire from a public ulility or other concern, then you're not living the life of a completely autonomous peasant farmer. You've lost your independence".

Then there's a description of 14/7. Amish boys get 14 years of free living with their parents, but, then, if they don't get married, they can stay another 7 years but have to hand over anything they earn to their father. "Amish don't advertise it," explains Cal, "but the way they see it, it's fourteen years free living as a kid. Seven years to pay it back as an adult. It builds family wealth".

Or, at a wedding (where, as usual, men and women eat separately, the men being served first), "the four witnesses were dressed like the bride and groom, so that to the unknowing, it would not be obvious, until the ceremony began, who among them would be married. This is a tradition held over from the years of European persecution."

It makes a strong and interesting story. Recommended.

Separate from the World (2008)
Separate from the World describes how, as another college year is ending, Professor Michael Branden is weary after nearly 30 years of teaching. As he later tells his good friend, Pastor Cal Troyer, he is sick of grading papers. "It was just a job to him, now. It was just a way to make money. His disaffection toward what had once been a career was hurting him. And he had always promised himself that if it came to that, he'd retire." Could this be the author expressing his own feelings through a character who sounds distinctly like him?

Branden receives an unexpected visit from an Amish man who claims that his brother, a dwarf like himself, has been murdered. Their conversation is interrupted by a commotion on the campus outside, which turns out to be the apparent suicide of a young woman, who, it seems, has leapt to her death from the college bell tower. The investigations of these two deaths become intertwined as Prof Brandon again teams up with his colleagues Pastor Cal Troyer and Sheriff Bruce Robertson to seek explanations for these bizarre events.

The most interesting part of this story is once again the Amish background, which the author treats with real sympathy and understanding. In this case, there is a rift between two Amish factions, one participating in a college study of genetic traits particular to their community and the other rejecting any outside influence. The story takes us inside their culture, and highlights the complex relationship of the Amish and the "English" as their separate worlds intersect.

The college itself seems to be is described with less affection. At times it sounds as though the author himself might be rather disgruntled with it all, what with the incompetent principal and the self publicising psychology professor Aidan Newhouse who "was a shrill anti-Iraq War protester " and "would do just about anything to relive the glories of his youth." The one thing Newhouse doesn't do is carefully read his students' final theses, but he just scans the start of them and then rewards anyone who seems to repeat his own pronounced opinions.

When two of the Amish children, a four-year-old little boy and a five-year-old girl, are attacked, and the boy is abducted, a real sense of excitement and horror leads to an exciting, if rather melodramatic climax. involving a deranged student who knocks Branden out, ties him up, together with Branden's wife Caroline, and Cal Troyer, and then, after confessing all, sets about enjoying killing them. But first he tells Caroline, "You go make some coffee, pretty lady. I want to be perky for all the fun."

All this violence is a long way from the Amish belief that "We are nonresisters .... We take pacifism to the next level and will not resist verbal or physical attacks of any kind. As for safety, only God can provide for us." They are not concerned about human justice for "our lives are written in the record of eternity. Based on this assessment, our lives are judged by God, who is solely capable of doing this. There is, therefore, no escaping who we are and what we have done. Our lives follow us into eternity. We let God judge us all. We are content to accept His judgement. We let God judge the hearts of evil men, because He alone is qualified to do it."

Pastor Cal Troyer's main role in the story is to act as a go-between between Prof Brandon, and Sheriff Robertson, and the ever-suspicious Amish. It is he who helps Sheriff Robertson to understand why the Amish will not allow him to take the terrified small boy to a doctor. "No," he had been told. "Our ways are best. We know suffering. Our ways are supposed to be hard."

But there is a surprise ending for him too when he discovers that he has a grown-up daughter - who turns out to be a dwarf. I would not normally give this sort of information away, but here it seems used as a gimmick - just to surprise the reader. Cal, not too convincingly, explains to Branden, "Her great-grandfather, my grand-father, was Amish .... I suppose there's always been a chance that someone among his descendants would be short."
"You don't have to explain anything to me, Cal. She's your daughter, and that's all I need to know."
"I know," Cal said. "I'm a little nervous. Things have been taking me by surprise, lately. I feel like I'm always a step or two behind where I'm supposed to be, and I can't seem to catch up with my life." Confronted with such unlikely happenings, it's no wonder he seems confused.

Harmless as Doves (2012)
Harmless as Doves starts with Amish Bishop Leon Shetler (an affectionate portrayal of an interesting and amiable character who enjoys living very much like an ordinary farmer) being startled out of his morning reverie with Amish farm boy Crist Burkholder's confession, “I just killed Glenn Spiegle."

No one – least of all Sheriff Bruce Robertson – believes that Crist Burkholder could actually be a murderer but the young Amish man is adamant that he killed his romantic rival in order to win Vesta Miller. So when Robertson's investigation reveals two potentially related murders in Florida's Pinecraft Amish community, Professor Mike Branden and Detective Ricky Niell head south to unravel the connection between the dead man and a far-flung Amish outpost on the shores of Sarasota. Pastor Cal Troyer plays a lesser part in this story, although his dwarf daughter, Rachel, proves to be a considerable help with her computer skills.

It isn't a particularly interesting plot and it is difficult to feel very involved. Indeed I had a job remembering who all the different characters were. The most interesting of them was the Amish bishop (who appreciates his usually quiet life and really does not want to fuss about whether or not members of his community possess cell phones), and you are left wishing that he played a more major part. The final helicopter shoot-out sounds distinctly unlikely, and by now the author seems to have said just about all he can about the Amish background, which is usually the most interesting part of his stories.

The author has his own website, and there is an article about him on the Christian Science Monitor site, and a brief biography on the Mystery Writers of America site.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


Blood of the Pridigal cover
The Amish costume and farming tools make this a highly effective cover.
Return to