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Death in Salem by Eleanor Kuhns

Eleanor Kuhns is the librarian-turned historical mystery writer.  I am in awe of her ability to work full time as assistant director of Goshen Public Library in New York and still have the time to do all the research and writing that is required to produce a high quality historical mystery series.  “Death in Salem” again features itinerant weaver Will Rees and his wife Lydia and is set in Maine and surrounding states in the 1790s.

Rees embarks on the trip south from Maine to Massachusetts to sell his wares to earn a few extra dollars for his growing family.  In the last novel in the “A Will Rees Mystery” series Rees and his wife acquire a brood of kids when they encounter a woman who is dying and who’s orphaned children they decide to adopt.  In Salem Will visits with his Revolutionary War compatriot nicknamed Twig, who has become the town undertaker.  Will accompanies his friend to the funeral averil (wake or post-funeral gathering) for the wife of a prominent merchant fleet owner who has died under somewhat mysterious circumstances after years of being bed-ridden.  She was a member of a prominent whaling family that lives several miles from Salem.  When the black slave servant of the dead woman’s household is arrested for her murder on little to no evidence, Twig asks Will to investigate to save the life of his lover, the black woman.

It is clear that the Sheriff is either incompetent or in on some wider plot tied in to this case.  Leads investigated by Will are far-ranging and suggest the possibility of an insurance fraud cover-up, possible smuggling, possible mercy killing, and several other potential reasons for the growing number of murders.

The one thing that I find a little bothersome, and particularly as the author moves forward with this series, is the lack of opportunity to include Lydia on the whole plot.  Lydia arrives late on the scene in “Death in Salem,” and while her insights do help to solve the case, this series is more satisfying when Will and Lydia work as a team from the start. Because the children clearly need Lydia at home the author is somewhat boxed in because someone must stay home with the kids while Will is plying his wares throughout the northeast. Perhaps the next novel will need to be set at their farm in Maine because there are a growing number of family issues to resolve that could be woven into the pattern of the next mystery.

Death in Salem” is a most insightful mystery.  So few mysteries these days are based on such thorough scholarship.  I learned a lot I did not know before about everything from slavery in the early northern states to the differences between the merchant ship trade and the whaling trade in late 18th century America.  Lovers of Historical mysteries set in colonial America will love this one!

Liz Nichols

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Cradle to Grave by Eleanor Kuhns

Eleanor Kuhns is obviously well-versed in the history of Shaker country in upstate New York and New England and in life in general on the harsh frontier in the decades after the American Revolution.  Her latest historical novel, “Cradle to Grave” is infused with the atmosphere and socio-economic realities of that period in these backwoods settlements.  Kuhns is a librarian by profession and a very promising novelist.  Her first work, “A Simple Murder” won the Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.

In “Cradle to Grave” her protagonist, Will Rees, a weaver from Maine, travels to a Shaker village in New York with his new wife, Lydia, to help one of Lydia’s friends who has broken the law in abducting five children of a single mother the friend, Mouse, believes are being neglected.  The mother is murdered and Mouse is accused of the crime.  Rees learns that there are many individuals in the town who have a reason to harm Maggie Whitney, the frequently drunk wet nurse who is killed.  Most of the town’s council members want her gone because her family threatens to become a drain on the town alms to the poor.  In those days many communities like Dover Springs, NY turned out, or “warned out” anyone who applied for assistance or failed to pay taxes if they or their parents were not born in the community.  In colonial and early republic days destitute widows and their children ended up dying of exposure because social welfare was only granted to those who “belonged.”  There are also a number of men in the community who might want to see Maggie and her children disappear rather than get discovered to be the father of one of the kids.  One other man wants her gone so he can claim the small farm and cabin that Maggie inherited from a relative.

The character development, the accurate historic context, and the bleak mid-winter physical descriptions are exceptional in “Cradle to Grave” and I was thoroughly absorbed by this mystery.  I plan on going back to read Kuhns’ two earlier novels and look forward to her next one.

Liz Nichols

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