A Simple Murder by Eleanor Kuhns
The story. William Rees is a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a grieving widower, and an itinerant weaver. When his son runs away from his sister’s care to join a community of Shakers near Durham, North Carolina, Rees leaves his wandering to attempt to reconcile with his son but becomes entangled in the murder of a young Shaker woman.
What I liked. I like historical mysteries where the emphasis in on human psychology and old-fashioned sleuthing. The Shaker community, called Zion, appears to be a collection of simple, God-fearing souls but of course in no time is revealed to be a complicated mess of human frailties and of course murder. Kuhn clearly knows the period and frequently puts in as much color as she can to help bring the period to live.
What I didn’t like. This is Kuhn’s first novel, but Rees seems to have just a bit too much backstory, with constant references to previous murders that he’s solved, including one where he was the prime suspect, old partners in solving crime, etc. I don’t know if Kuhn has these other stories in the form of unpublished manuscripts or is laying the groundwork for a future prequel, but it felt forced in the story. It did have the effect of explaining why a traveling weaver would be called on to solve a murder when there is a sheriff in the area whose job it would be in the first place.
In addition there’s a romantic subplot involving proto-feminist Lydia Ferrell whose relationship with Rees seems rushed somehow, as does Rees’ conversion from basically telling her to not speak in his presence to missing her presence every time they are apart.
Then there’s the murder itself. It is not a complicated affair and I think most readers will at least pick up on the primary culprit without too much difficulty. I actually talked myself out of believing who it was based on the clues because I expected some clever twist, some missed detail, that would point to someone else.
My takeaway. I’m always looking for things to use in my own storytelling, and the notion of a bucolic, even boring community holding dark secrets is one that I did like about this book. Kuhn treads into the water of having religious people revealed as hypocrites, but there are enough genuine, kind people (usually those on the fringe of the Shaker community) to make it not too blatant.
Buy, library, or skip? I probably won’t be re-reading this book, but it wasn’t bad, so I’m calling it a library check-out option.