As you read Linda Castillo’s seventh book in her Kate Burkholder series, After the Storm (Minotaur, July), think about this: when Castillo was nine years old, her father bought a tiny piglet for a dollar, and the family called it Pinky. Pinky joined them on their farm in the western Ohio village of Ithaca (population 79), where they kept a few chickens, pigs, cows, and the occasional sheep or goat. It didn’t take long for Pinky to grow large—and ornery. “And then,” says Castillo, “one day Pinky attacked a chicken and tore it to shreds!”
Castillo, visiting from her home in Texas on a marketing and publicity trip, recalls this unsettling event during our breakfast (bacon included) in a small French bistro near her publisher’s New York office. We’re meeting to talk about After the Storm and the Burkholder novels in general. That series, which Castillo began with Sworn to Silence in the mid-2000s after several romantic suspense novels, features Kate Burkholder as the formerly Amish police chief of Painters Mill, Ohio, a largely Amish town. The stories are charming, as are the characters: affable officers and police staff, the Amish neighbors Kate once lived among, and especially John Tomasetti, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent.
Castillo’s obvious comfort and familiarity with the so-called plain people have led many fans to wonder about her personal link to the Amish. Surprisingly, she doesn’t have one. “As a child I lived a rural life,” she says. “I raised horses and showed one in 4H. There was an Amish girl on my school bus, but I didn’t really know the people. It was many years later, around 2006, when my brother-in-law took me to Amish country to see the 200-year-old farm where he grew up that it suddenly hit me.” She realized the bucolic beauty of the land and the gentle nature of the people would make a stunning contrast to murder and other assorted gruesome crimes. And so, thanks to her brother-in-law, a bestselling thriller series was born.
Since then, Castillo has devoured the works of John Hostetler, whose detailed descriptions of the Amish way of life have provided her with valuable background information. Her Pennsylvania Dutch phrase book is always at hand. She has visited Amish farms and even driven an Amish buggy, which was “very scary on the roads.” And after New York, she’s headed to Cleveland for a book festival and a visit to another Amish farm.
Though Castillo herself is not Amish, her books feel authentic. Kate’s dealings with the Amish, whom she converses with in Pennsylvania Dutch, and her fellow “Englischer” townspeople seem perfectly natural. And many Amish readers agree, including Mark Oliver, the curator of the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center, who let her drive his buggy.
In addition to getting the Amish culture so right, Castillo’s small-city police department atmosphere is also pitch perfect. Castillo lights up as she describes participating in two 12-week Citizens Police Academy courses in two Texas cities: “I got to ride the graveyard shift with officers who responded to a possible burglary, and a domestic dispute that had actually turned bloody. I went through firearm training, where they had set up crime scenarios in classrooms. I was given a plugged revolver and instructed to enter a room accompanied by a training officer, where I had to assess the situation and defuse it to the best of my ability. My heart was pounding. In one scenario I burst into a ladies’ room and saw a woman lying on the floor with a man on top of her, his hand raised over his head. I saw something in his hand so I assumed he was assaulting the woman. I raised my revolver and fired. It turned out he had a police badge in his hand. It’s a lot more difficult than you’d think to walk into a scene knowing so little about what’s going on. I also used a firearms training machine, which was basically a Glock [a kind of pistol] with a laser attached that measures ‘kills,’ ‘misses’ and ‘nonlethal shots.’ There were various crime scenes playing out on a screen. Using the Glock and my voice, I had to decide when the situation called for deadly force. Wow! It was such a valuable learning experience. I’ve called upon it so many times.”
As for other influences, Castillo has great respect for John Sandford, whom she calls “the premier police procedural writer.”
Castillo always wanted to be a writer, and, at age 13, she started her first novel, “about twin sisters who ran away from home on their Appaloosa horses. It was called A Long Journey. Unfortunately, I never finished it. When my father died, my sister and I were looking through his things, and there it was. My manuscript that he’d kept all those years. It still had my sweaty palm print on it.”
After attending community college and holding a variety of jobs, Castillo lived in Florida, where she met her husband, Ernest. They married and settled in Dallas. “I was dazzled by Dallas,” she says, which was a far cry from 4H and rogue piggies. She began working for Domino’s Pizza, staying for 12 years as franchise accounts manager. It was during this time that she started writing her pre-Burkholder novels, discovering a love of suspense, and earning a Rita nomination in 2000 for best first book for Remember the Night. She stuck to a strict writing schedule, getting up at 5:30 a.m. to write before work, then again on her lunch break, and often at night. “Nora Roberts once told me, ‘You can’t fix a blank page,’ ” Castillo says. “She’s right. And so I always write something.”
Today, Castillo works mostly in the mornings, on the small ranch near Amarillo, Tex., where she lives with Ernest, who is an engineer and the son of Cuban immigrants. “They left on the very last flight out of Cuba in 1960,” says Castillo. The family first moved to Miami, then Dallas.
Ernest’s parents are retired in Miami among their Cuban-American family and friends. Castillo speaks some Spanish; asked if perhaps Cuban Miami might be an intriguing setting for a new series, she admits that she’s thought about it.
The Burkholder novels have received much critical attention. Her Last Breath was a finalist for the International Thriller Writers Best Hardcover in 2014, and The Dead Will Tell was named a Boston Globe Best Book of 2014. Sworn to Silence was made into a movie called An Amish Murder, starring Neve Campbell. “She was terrific and very much like Kate,” says Castillo. Soon Kate and Tomasetti will be appearing in a digital-only short story, “Long Lost,” in which the two take a break in an Amish bed and breakfast that turns out to be haunted by a girl who disappeared years earlier.
Castillo fully intends to stick with Burkholder for the foreseeable future. So what’s up next for the chief? Well (slight spoiler alert), she will take on a temporary assignment in upstate New York. But not to worry—they have Amish communities there, too.
Carol Peace Robins is a freelance writer in New York City.