Cradle to Grave by Eleanor Kuhns is the third historical mystery featuring Will Rees, a Revolutionary War veteran braving a winter trek to New York with his wife to save a Shaker friend accused of murder (available June 17, 2014).
I confess. I knew nothing about the Shaker community except that they made beautiful furniture until I read this book. What I found is their world is bound by different rules and objectives, but their problems are the same ones faced by other communities every day.
Cradle to Grave is the third book in Eleanor Kuhn's historical mystery series featuring Will Rees. The first book, A Simple Murder, won the MWA Best First Crime Novel in 2011. It was followed by Death of a Dyer the following year. Eleanor has picked a focused and fascinating setting for her books. Though Will Rees and his wife, Lydia, are not part of a Shaker community, Lydia was before their marriage. They are drawn back to Zion with a letter asking for help from a friend.
Hannah Moore, affectionately known as Mouse, sends a letter begging for their help because she had been accused of kidnapping. Knowing the Shaker communities and their rules for living, this is an impossibility to Will and Lydia. Will Rees is sure he can convince Lydia to wait until spring, because winters in Maine are never kind. However, Lydia’s loyalty to her friend affects her judgment and she insists they go help Mouse now.
After almost two weeks of icy roads, snowstorms, and dirty beds in different inns, Rees and Lydia reached Dover Springs, a small town to the west of Albany. Its main street boasted a church, a general store, and a sprawling inn called the Ram’s Head. Rees drove to the inn and immediately arranged for a room. Since mid-February saw few travelers, the three rooms on the second floor of Ram’s Head were empty and he was able to secure a large private chamber at the back. This room was warmest, with the heat rising from the kitchen below, and very clean. They would not need to use the sheets and quilts Lydia had brought from home. Rees hoped they might find lodging with the Shakers at Mount Unity when they arrived, but that wasn’t certain.
I never thought of carsickness affecting historical travelers, but it seems poor Lydia faced her own stomach distress with the travel.
“What’s wrong?” Rees touched Lydia’s gloved wrist.
“Just a little tired. I don’t think I can manage cider.” She leaned across the table and said in a low voice. “We should go to Mount Unity immediately after supper. Mouse is waiting.”
“We need to rest,” Rees objected. “And it will be dark soon.” When her mouth took on a mutinous curve he added, “And Ares needs to rest as well. I think at the last posthouse they gave us an older gelding. If we want to use him here…” He allowed his words to trail away, knowing she would not treat any animal cruelly. Lydia’s mouth relaxed and she nodded, although reluctantly.
“Of course you’re correct. It’s just that we’ve come so far and are now so close, and I know Mouse must be very anxious.”
In spite of her own discomfort and stomach distress, Lydia is intent on getting to her friend. That is one of the reasons I found this book so compelling. The author made me feel what the characters did, so I was actively involved in the story and had to know what would happen next. I believe this is a gift for a writer. It’s one thing to read the story, it’s a completely different process to become one of the characters that needs to find answers.
When they arrive in Dover Springs after their arduous journey, the couple discover Mouse did kidnap a family of children from their mother, along with a foundling that the woman was wet-nursing. Not only is Mouse accused of illegally taking the children, the woman has been murdered and now Mouse is the perfect suspect.
Knowing Will has solved a murder before, Mouse puts her faith in him, and while he is digging through the residents of Dover Springs, the small town adjacent to the Shaker community, Lydia cares for the now-orphaned children.
Kuhns creates a clever tale of intrigue and murder with this story. It has all the markings of a modern-day mystery though set in the post-Revolutionary War period. Mouse is sure the mother of the children is unfit to care for them, and Will and Lydia find plenty of evidence to support that, but Will also discovers that the murder victim was a strong and complicated person. He’s convinced someone knows the truth, but can he find it in the closed community?
I could not only feel the chill from the snow and ice Will Rees had to plod through, but also the cold shoulder from the townspeople was just as forceful. Kuhns provides a wonderful array of suspects, discounts them, and then subtly puts them back in the running again. She’s very good at keeping the reader guessing and coming up with the wrong answers, while staying true to the era and to the people of that time:
Although the morning was rapidly disappearing, Lydia insisted they drive to Mount Unity to visit Mouse. “We’re already out. And she will want to know you’re still working to prove her innocence.”
“If you think it’s necessary,” Rees said. “I’ll be gone for only a few days.”
“She’ll want to know,” Lydia repeated. So Rees yielded.
This time, although they drove directly to the Second Family courtyard, and introduced themselves to a Brother immediately, they waited a long time before one of the younger Sisters arrived to guide them to the apartment on the second floor of the Meeting House. Then they waited in the small front hall for another twenty or so minutes, until Elder Herman finally appeared.
“I apologize,” Herman said. “I was in the cow barn.”
“I’m sorry,” Rees said. “My wife and I thought we should tell Mouse I’ll be away for a few days. In Albany, as part of my search for Mrs. Whitney’s murderer.” Herman inclined his head but did not speak.
“How is she?” Lydia asked. “Mouse, I mean.”
“Resigned, I suppose. She spends most of her time alone in her room. Spinning and weaving.” He paused. “I daresay she’ll be glad to see you.”
“I expect she will,” Lydia said, not very civilly.
“Mouse is not accustomed to being alone,” Rees said.
“I know.” Herman met Rees’s gaze. "But this isn’t jail either.” His gentle reproof silenced both Rees and Lydia.
This novel made me think of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot in the methods of detecting and digging for the truth. Eleanor has a light hand with foreshadowing, but when she shows the end result, I suspect you'll slap your forehead just like I did for not realizing what was happening.
This is a cool story that makes a great summer mystery read. I highly recommend it and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
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Leigh Neely is a former journalist and editor who writes fiction with her writing partner, Jan Powell. The first book of “The Connelly Witches” miniseries for Harlequin E is out June 2. Witch’s Awakening by Neely Powell will be followed by Witch’s Haunting in the fall, and you can see True Nature at all book sites online. Leigh also writes for the popular blog, WomenofMystery.net.