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Friday 13 September 2019

‘Simply Dead’ by Eleanor Kuhns

Published by Severn House,
30 April 2019.
ISBN: 978-0-727 -8884-6 (HB)

Researching a historical novel is a straightforward matter of looking at books, documents and the internet. Making it feel right is a whole different skill, and it's a skill Eleanor Kuhns has in bucketloads. 

North-eastern America in the late 18th century is almost an alien world: one-roomed houses with dirt floors, three-mile walks to school for the children, values and customs far removed from the more relaxed approach we now adopt. Life was hard for ordinary people trying to scrape a living off the land. All this and more comes richly to life as background for Kuhns's Will Rees series.

Rees and his family live close to a Shaker community which is possibly the most dangerous of its kind in the country. Not only does the murder at the centre of the narrative take place there; mention is also made of murders in previous volumes in the series, which Rees has been involved in solving.

Not that he is a lawman; that role falls to Constable Rouge, who also runs the local bar and restaurant. But Rouge is something of a bull in a china shop; Rees usually thinks before he jumps. He is called in to help search for Hortense, a young midwife who has apparently been abducted en route home from delivering a baby; he finds her, hurt and distressed, and it soon becomes apparent that she isn't telling the whole truth about what happened to her.

Hortense takes refuge in the Shaker community, and shortly afterwards another young woman is found strangled, possibly in mistake for Hortense. Rees now has two mysteries to solve, and as if that wasn't enough, his eldest adopted daughter is attacked. 

That rich background really comes into its own as Rees travels up the nearby mountain and into the forest in bitter winter weather in search of answers. There are wolves, a wise woman, and several families made aggressive by isolation and the conditions they live in, and Kuhns has the knack of drawing the reader in to feel part of the story.

The sharply drawn, well-rounded characters add to the sense of involvement: Rees himself, sometimes sensitive, sometimes clumsy, always well meaning; Lydia, his intelligent, self-possessed wife; Jerusha, his headstrong daughter; clumsy Rouge; emotional Bernadette, Hortense's mother, Pearl the feisty teenage Shaker: they all come to life, as do the gentler members of the community who conceal iron strength under a calm exterior.

I was left feeling I'd visited late 18th century Maine, not just read about it. More than that – I wanted to go back for more, to get to know these people better, and explore their world further. It all felt right.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Eleanor Khuns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel competition. She lives in New York, and received her master’s in Library Science from Columbia University. She is currently the Assistant Director at the Goshen Public Library in Orange Country, New York.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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