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A SIMPLE MURDER by Eleanor Kuhns: Book Review

Winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Best First Crime Novel Award for 2011, A Simple Murder is a simply wonderful book.

Eleanor Kuhns takes the reader to post-Revolutionary War Maine, where former soldier William Rees had been a farmer living with his wife Deborah and their young son David. Following Deborah’s death several years before the novel opens, William left his son and his farm in the care of his sister Caroline and her husband with the understanding that the farm and its livestock were to remain as is and that they would take care of David as if he were one of their own children.  On his visit to the farm after a year’s absence, William is stunned to learn that thirteen-year-old David has left the farm and gone to the nearby Shaker community and that many of the farm animals have been sold.

The Shakers, also called the United Society of Believers, were a group founded in the 1770s in England who came to America to live in communities where they could freely practice their beliefs. Known for their simple lifestyle, celibacy, and care of orphans, the Shakers lived in enclaves outside cities and towns, but their unique way of life sometimes led to persecution and hostility from their neighbors.  Thus William rushes to the Shaker village to make certain his son is there willingly and is safe.

William has became an itinerant weaver in recent years, traveling the northern states and plying his trade.  But his freedom has cost him the closeness he would have liked with his son; indeed, when he first sees David the youth wants nothing to do with him.

Assured by an angry and distant David that it was his choice to enter the community, although as yet he has not signed the Covenant to become a full member, William spends the night at a nearby farm and is stunned when approached by the town’s sheriff the following morning and placed under arrest for the murder of a young Shaker woman, Sister Chastity.

The next day, following the farmer’s statement that William had indeed spent the night in his barn and could not possibly have returned to the Shakers and committed a murder, William is released.  But then he is asked by Elder White, co-leader of the Shakers, to return to the community and help them find the murderer.  When William questions the Elder as to how and why he’s been chosen to do this, White replies that William’s son David has told the Elder that William has solved several murders since his release from the Continental army.  Heartened by this show of respect and possible affection by his son, William accepts the commission and returns to Durham to find the culprit.

The young woman who was killed left a prosperous husband to join the Shakers, although some in the community questioned her commitment to them and to the two young children she brought with her.  Was there another reason, other than Sister Chastity’s alleged interest in the Shaker faith, that brought her to Durham?

And Lydia Jane Farrell, an attractive woman who lives just outside the Society in a home provided by the Shakers, is another enigma; what is keeping her there?  William is faced with many secrets, both within the Shaker community and without.

Eleanor Kuhns’ debut novel is a fascinating read, both because of the time period in which she has set the book and the interesting characters she has created.

You can read more about her at this web site.