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When rebel Amish woman Hannah Esh brings some friends to a boos and booze party at a cemetery near her farm, someone shoots at them. Forced to return to her Amish roots to help with the FBI murder investigation, Hannah is torn between handsome, arrogant FBI agent Linc Armstrong and her former betrothed, Seth Lantz. Caught between Seth and Linc, between old and new, Amish and worldly, Hannah must choose her future. Unless a killer chooses it for her.

Author Karen Harper recently sat down for an ITW interview:

Can you tell us a bit about this middle book, RETURN TO GRACE, in your HOME VALLEY AMISH TRILOGY?

Each of the three books focuses on one of a set of Amish friends, each of whom is involved in a crime and helps to solve it.  Hannah Esh, the heroine of RETURN TO GRACE, is a “fence jumper,” a rebel who has left the Amish to try a worldly singing career—and because the man she loved betrayed her.  With several goth friends, Hannah returns on Halloween for a “boos and booze” party in the local cemetery, where shots ring out.  One of her friends is killed, and she is injured.  When an FBI agent is brought in to solve the crime, Hannah finds herself torn between two worlds and two men.  The problem is, someone is still out to kill her.

You’ve written seven suspense novels set in Ohio Amish country.  Why does that idyllic setting work for a thriller?

Crimes in what should be a peaceful, safe setting are more shocking than urban crime, where we expect something.  Often, too, in rural settings, “the enemy is us” –someone known to the main characters.  Obviously, the Amish do not have the usual protective devices:  no cell phones or phones in the home, no cars to drive to get help.  And scenes lit by a kerosene lantern in a huge barn or deep cornfield can really up the ante.  The other thing is that the Amish do not in general trust law enforcement or lawyers.  So when an arson investigator or FBI agent enters the scene, there is instant conflict with the Amish characters.  And, if the Amish heroine and worldly investigator are attracted to each other—forbidden love.

What seems to be the allure of Amish fiction for modern readers today?  Just curiosity about their very different lives?

That’s certainly part of it.  I think, as our world becomes more stressful and technology-driven, modern readers love an escape.  Nostalgia for the rural American past may be part of an Amish setting’s appeal, but I think there is not only a curiosity but a deep need in us “worldly folk” to enter a society where marriages last, kids are (usually) respectful and loving, and people live by a strong faith.  I love to take my readers into an enclave setting they know little about, whether that be Appalachia or the far reaches of Alaska.  The world of the Amish is fascinating in and of itself, then coupled with a crime-thriller, the setting really stands out.

What’s something you’ve learned about the Amish that most people would not know?

Two things.  It is not true that they won’t change or adapt.  If a cell phone is needed on a job, that can be permissible.  If an Amish person must work with an FBI agent or sheriff, permission can be granted.  The other thing I’m continually amazed by is that, although formal Amish education stops at the 8th grade level, the Plain People are extremely self-educated in many diverse areas.

Speaking of learning about the Amish, how do you do your research/background for your settings?  The Amish are rather difficult to interview, aren’t they?

I live two hours from Holmes County, Ohio, now the largest population of Amish in America.  Over the years, we have visited frequently, we spend several days at a time in the region, so I have developed contacts.  Once one or two of the Amish trust you, you have an automatic introduction to others.  I have also interviewed those the Amish call the English, such as the executive director of the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau.  She’s been a big help to me in discussing such things as Amish unemployment, local crime, and special events.  In my author note at the end of each book, I usually say something like, “Thanks for the kindness and generosity of the Amish who do not wish to be individually named.”

What’s next (and, in a trilogy, last) in this series?

Book three, FINDING MERCY, will be out in July 2012.  BTW, I’ve intentionally written this trilogy so that the books can stand alone, although they are best read in order.  In the final book, Ella Lantz, the Amish woman who has seemed too stuck-to-her-ways, so true blue Amish, gets the shock and the adventure of her life, when her parents take in a New York City, Wall Street whistle blower whose life is in danger.  Supposedly living anonymously under the WITSEC program, Alex Caldwell thinks he’s safe in rural Amish country.  But he is somehow found out.  Is the one trying to shut him up part of the local community or an outsider?  When an attempt is made on Ella’s life, she finds herself on the run with a man who is a polar opposite from her.  She was his bridge to the Amish life; now a metro man has an Amish woman to protect at the risk to his own life.  I love to turn the tables on people who think they have their entire lives figured out until disaster comes calling.


Karen Harper is the NYTimes and USA TODAY bestselling author of contemporary suspense and historical novels. Published since 1982, she has novels in many foreign languages, most recently Russia and Turkey. She and her husband divide their time between Columbus, Ohio and Naples, Florida. She won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for one of her Amish-set novels, DARK ANGEL.

To learn more about Karen, please visit her website.