When I pick up a debut mystery, and it turns out to be a thoughtful, well-developed traditional mystery, it’s exciting. Eleanor Kuhns’ A Simple Murder was the winner of the 2011 Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Competition. Today is the release date for this fascinating mystery introducing Will Rees, an itinerant weaver and former soldier who investigates a murder at a Maine Shaker settlement in 1796.
Will Rees’ wife died six years earlier, and he turned his farm over to his sister and brother-in-law with the understanding they would take care of his son, David. He was furious when he returned home from his travels as a weaver to discover his fourteen-year-old son had run away from home to Zion, a Shaker community. But, when his son rejected him upon his arrival there, Will was angry with himself. He left there, spending the night in a farmer’s barn, only to find himself put in jail as a suspect in the murder of a young woman at Zion. Following his release, he was surprised to find Elder White waiting for him. David had told the Elder that his father had skills in discovering the truth about murder, a gift for “Making clear the darkness surrounding tragedies.”
Despite his request for help, Elder White is reluctant to allow Rees to interview the women of Zion, the Sisters. When Rees insists, he’s provided a chaperone for those interviews, Lydia Jane Farrell, a woman who was once a member of the community. As the two question the women, Lydia proves to be an able assistant, but she is independent and forthright. Despite his reluctance to work with anyone, Rees finds himself attracted to the woman. They both lost someone they love, and still grieve for their loved ones.
And, it isn’t long before the man Lydia mourns becomes part of Rees’ murder investigation. It seems Sister Chastity might not be the only Shaker who was a murder victim. The questions, both at the settlement and in the nearby town, stir up secrets and trouble. When Rees and David are shot at, Rees doesn’t know if someone hates Shakers, or he’s getting too close to the truth.
A Simple Murder is an engrossing historical mystery, filled with details of Shaker life and Rees’ life on the road. It’s a well-developed traditional mystery with a sleuth who has developed his skills over years of travel and knowledge and understanding of people. However, Will Rees is a fascinating character because he can’t see and understand the issues with his own son. Rees’ inability to settle and stay in one place took him out on the road, but he neglected his farm and his son while he traveled. He’s a lonely man, faced with guilt, grief over the loss of his wife, and shame that he was so self-absorbed that he missed everything happening to his son and his farm.
Kuhns’ debut mystery is a complex story. As in any good traditional mystery, the roots of the murder are close to home. In A Simple Murder, Kuhns has introduced a traveling sleuth, one who roams from southernmost Georgia to northern Maine, a sleuth whose lifestyle provides so many opportunities for future stories. This historical mystery takes Will Rees into a Shaker community. I’m hoping his travels continue to take him to fascinating places and into intriguing stories of early America.