Vannetta Chapman, spinning Amish murder mysteries

Amish and murder mysteries!?!
They go together like Golden Retrievers and Christmas or Vampires and Thanksgiving—or James Bond and Bible Study, don’t they?
Well, the truth is: All of these are red hot cultural combinations this year. Big dogs have taken over the shelves of Christmas movies once reserved for Wonderful Life and Christmas Carol. The latest Twilight blockbuster debuts this month just in time for Thanksgiving. (See our separate story today on Twilight.) And we reported on the James Bond Bible Study last week.

The current popularity of Amish mysteries isn’t a fad. Today’s very successful Amish genre, sometimes called “Bonnet Books,” stretches back almost 30 years to the 1985 hit movie Witness, which earned Harrison Ford his one and only Best Actor Oscar nomination. Ford played Philadelphia police captain John Book, who took a temporary detour into Amish country to protect a beautiful Amish widow (Kelly McGillis who later starred in Top Gun) and her young son. While visiting a big city, they witnessed a murder and the bad guys wanted them dead. When that movie hit theaters, real-life Amish—distinctive for their pacifism and their separation from the modern world—were not amused. They described the movie as an assault on their culture and, in one public statement, an Amish spokesman said his people feared that “the crowding, souvenir-hunting, photographing and trespassing on Amish farmsteads will increase.”

Flash forward to 2012 and Vannetta Chapman’s third murder mystery, once again, turns on the huge popularity of Amish culture. All three of her murder mysteries are set in Shipshewana, Indiana, where a world-famous weekly “sale” draws more than 1 million visitors each year to a town with less than 600 residents. Most rural towns of that size could scarcely support a single general store, but real-life Shipshewana boasts more than 100 thriving shops. In Vannetta Chapman’s fictional world, one of those stores is a quilt shop owned by a non-Amish woman named Callie. The smart, compassionate and gutsy Callie stands between three worlds. Callie interacts with the tourists; she has close Amish friends and there is an unfolding romance with local detective Shane Black. We won’t spoil the mystery series by saying more about those relationships.

But, today, you can meet Vannetta Chapman as ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews her.


DAVID: Even fans of the super-popular Amish genre chuckle and call these “Bonnet Books.” One book-marketing expert says, “Slap a bonnet on the cover and double the sales.” Right now, you’re fortunate to be right in the heart of this Amish craze, writing novels for three different publishers.

VANNETTA, laughing: Sure, I’ve heard that, too. “If we put a bonnet on it, we can sell it!” But, seriously, this reflects a real fascination with Amish culture. To those of us who are not Amish, they seem to be frozen in time as they live in communities where our grandparents or great grandparents once lived. That’s part of the appeal. People read these books and say: “Oh, I remember this!” Or: “I remember that.” They remember a grandmother canning vegetables. They remember an aunt who quilted. Plus, most Amish lead lives that seem picture perfect to outsiders. Drive around the area of Indiana where my mysteries are set and you’ll see neat houses, manicured yards and gardens that a professional might show off in a television show on gardening.

There’s more than outward appearance. Readers admire their values and the way they manage to live. These are hard workers. They don’t spend their money on all the things that we are so drawn to buy. People latch on to this genre of fiction because they want to immerse themselves in the lives of people who really do slow down and simplify. We all say we’d like to make some of these changes in our lives. These are people who actually live that way.

DAVID: Let’s be clear that you’re not Amish, nor was your family Amish—at least not the recent generations in your family. Our readers have met Saloma Furlong, who was raised Amish and left as an adult. Saloma is writing her memoirs and touring the country talking to groups about Amish life. You don’t even live in an Amish region. You’re from Texas, which isn’t known as an Amish homeland. So, do you get complaints about  your books from the Amish? You’re an outsider looking in and selling books about them.

VANNETTA: I really haven’t gotten negative feedback at all. One reason, I think, is that I do my research very well. If I’m going to write about a place, like Shipshewana, I go stay there for a while. I walk through the town. I meet people and get to know them. I spend time in the town. I don’t do research just sitting at home and looking through the Internet. I also have some connections that help me. My grandfather lived in Pennsylvania. I have a strong German background and there possibly is some Amish background in my family tree. All of my family’s early correspondence in this country is in German. Most importantly, though, I’m a writer. Lots of authors write mysteries about terrorists, for example, and readers don’t expect them to be terrorists themselves. I write fiction.


DAVID: The other thing readers need to know about your Amish mysteries is: They’re cozies. Now, mystery fans understand that phrase immediately, but we should explain it. In fact, I’m curious to hear your description of what makes a cozy.

VANNETTA: There are many types of mysteries today. First, there are the more graphic murder mysteries with all the blood and violence and lots of explicit details about the killing and, later, gruesome details about the dead body.

DAVID: Some might call them “procedurals” or CSI-style mysteries. These mystery sub-genres really are evolving toward lots of detail—even on prime-time TV—about the most gruesome crimes and the scientific investigation of the dead body, right?

VANETTA: Yes, that’s the more graphic kind of mystery and I can tell you: There are a whole lot of people who just don’t want to see all those autopsy details! At least I can say: Cozy readers don’t want that level of explicitness. They’re much more interested in the motivations and the relationships surrounding the crime. They want to help the characters puzzle out what happened. Then, there also are suspense books and a lot of them involve murder mysteries. But the suspense story always has some kind of a ticking clock and some kind of terrible explosion that’s going to happen if the characters don’t move quickly enough. You’re always anxious about whether the main characters can complete the next thing they have to do before the ticking clock reaches whatever terrible disaster might happen.

My novels are cozies and they’re also described as Christian fiction. Zondervan contacted me, based on other Amish fiction I had written, and asked me to write the series like this—as cozy mysteries that are Christian fiction. Zondervan already had an Amish romance writer and they specifically needed an Amish mystery writer. I had never even considered such an idea, but I agreed to try it. Now that I have published three of these Shipshewana mysteries, I define this kind of cozy as a story where someone stumbles on the body. As in most cozies, I’ve got a semi-professional investigator who pairs up with an amateur sleuth. When the body appears, the two of them are thrown together in trying to work out the mystery.

This is Christian fiction because it’s clean and it has spiritual values in it. If your teenage daughter picks it up and reads it, that’s perfectly fine with you. This genre is definitely a pendulum swinging away from the crime dramas that are so popular on television right now that seem to have more and more graphic scenes with each new season. In these mysteries, we’re not focused on the violence. We’re focused on who is responsible. How did this happen? And the overall message is that, even in these terrible situations, God’s grace can be found and shared.

DAVID: I enjoy your style of storytelling. For this interview, I finished your third mystery and it really is focused on these well-drawn characters. There is a heart-pounding mystery, once an Amish woman is found dead in Shipshewana. And we genuinely care about several of your main characters, so we keep turning your pages. But, I have to point out—and this isn’t a “spoiler”—that you’re already thinking about one of the most common problems in mystery series: After several books, the bodies begin to pile up, right? A long-running murder spree in peaceful Shipshewana? That begins to defy common sense.

VANNETTA: I’m already moving down the road. The Shipshewana series is now finished. Seriously, I’ve had readers email me and say: “I’m planning to go to Shipshewana and I’m nervous.” We can’t have too many murders in Shipshewana!

DAVID: I’m laughing because this is such a common problem in murder series! My wife and I are fans of the BBC series Midsomer Murders, set in a fictional rural region of England. As much as we love that series, it just gets ridiculous to believe that so many murderers could live in such a tiny, picturesque spot. So, you’ve solved the problem! You keep moving!

VANNETTA: Yes, I’m already working on the next Amish mystery series and it is down the road a ways. This time, my main character will be a woman who is a little older. She’s the general manager of a facility somewhat like the famous Essenhaus.

DAVID: I love that idea. My own family has deep roots in northern Indiana and I’ve eaten at Essenhaus a number of times throughout my life. It’s a lovely landmark. And that general idea, I hope, will tease our readers to keep in touch with you. The best way is to follow your main website. I’m also going to give readers a link to the About page within your website, which lists all of your books in order of publication.


DAVID: Before we close, I think it’s important to sketch your cast of characters. I could take a stab at that myself, as a reader, but let me invite you to describe your main trio. Can you start with our heroine throughout the series—Callie Harper?

VANNETTA: Callie Harper is a character in her 20s from Texas who inherits the shop in Indiana. At first, she knows nothing about being a shopkeeper or being in an Amish community. Her life literally is falling apart. She quit her job. Her husband died the year before. She doesn’t know what she’s supposed to be doing with her life. She’s adopted by these Amish women who really need to see that the quilt shop stays open. There’s a lot of growth in Callie from the first to the third book. Not that she wasn’t Christian from the beginning, but in the first novel she really has lost her way in life.

Deborah Yoder is a quintessential Amish woman. She’s in her 30s and has five children and lives on a farm. Her life is simple and she’s satisfied with it but she also loves quilting and likes seeing how the patterns turn out. She carries those principles over into her daily life. She’s very good at taking clues they are seeing and putting them together to discern what they mean. She has no doubt that ultimately God is in control, so she is a wonderful role model for Callie. I’ve had so many readers write to me and say: “I wish I had friends like Deborah.”

Then, there’s Shane. His back-story comes out more in the third book. He’s a detective. He works with the Amish. In general Amish are reticent to contact legal authorizes about any problem. But, they will sometimes. I’ve met and talked to people who have called on legal authorities. But generally their preference is not to pursue legal remedies. So there is that tension already between Shane and half of his town who are Amish. They believe they have God’s protection yet it his legal duty to follow through and to try to protect and serve this community himself.

DAVID: I’m going to give readers one last enticement to check out your website, Vannetta. You really do seem to enjoy interacting with your readers. And—here’s the enticement—you often like to give away things on your website, right?

VANNETTA: I do. It’s not big stuff, but I’m often giving away something. I get to travel a lot in the work that I do. I know my readers love these settings I’m describing, but most of them don’t have the resources to travel as much as I can. So, when I go out to visit in these Amish communities, I like to pick up a little something for my readers. Then, later I give these things away online. When I’m able to send something to a reader, I think of it as their chance to have some real contact with the places I’ve told them about in the novels. I enjoy doing that.


You can order the first novel, Falling to Pieces (A Shipshewana Amish Mystery) from Amazon now. Then, the second volume is A Perfect Square, also available from Amazon. The latest novel—Vannetta’s third and final Shipshewana mystery—is Material Witness.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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