Death in Salem by Eleanor Kuhns is the 4th historical mystery in the Will Rees series where an innocent trip through Salem puts the weaver in the middle of a murder investigation (available June 16, 2015).
Will Rees is on his way home from a business trip. He stops in Salem, Massachusetts, to buy something special to take home to his wife and runs into an old army buddy. Twig, the buddy, is now an undertaker. He invites Rees to accompany him to an after-funeral reception at the home of a prominent Salem family. Within days another member of the family has died, and Rees agrees to investigate the murder.
Rees’s business is weaving, and the trip has been made by horse and wagon. The army he and Twig served in was led by General George Washington.
I have to admit to being a bit confused as to when the story was taking place at first. That was due in large part to my seeing the means of travel and knowing a war has recently fought on American soil and assuming that it is just after the Civil War. Once I got my bearings, on page three, I was fine.
Salem and the era become characters as important to the story as Rees, Twig or anyone else. Eleanor Kuhns captures the sights, sounds and even the smells of the harbor town:
Rees forgot the little maid as he stepped for the first time upon Salem dock. All of this sea town smelled of salt, but here the tang, mixed with the rotting stink of the outgoing tide, was overpowering. Gulls screamed overhead and flocks of them rested on every surface; they were almost tame, dropping down to the wooden dock to hunt for scraps. Although accustomed to gulls—he was from the District of Maine, after all— Rees had never seen such brazen birds. The flocks were more like packs of some small carnivore, relentless and demanding, and reluctant to move except at the threat of some attacking boot.
He had come out somewhere near the middle of the docks. Ware houses and businesses lined the dock on either side of him, and wharves of all different lengths stretched greedily into the harbor. One was so long, a mile or more, that the end was lost in the glare of the rising sun.
My nephew is a historian, and he loves to point out inaccuracies in movies. Did you know that stirrups on saddles weren’t invented until about four hundred years after the events of Gladiator? Anyway, I was tempted to check in with him about some of the details in this book. It was so rich in details about food, dress and social norms that I kept wondering if the author is a historian. But who wants to stop in the middle of a mystery to Google a fact—or text a nephew for that matter?
One of the things I do look for in historical novels of any genre is the insertion of modern sensibilities into characters from one hundred or more years ago. Rees admires two strong women who live as much by their own rules as they can. Not something I would expect from a working class man of the late eighteenth century. But then he considers his own treatment of his strong-willed sister, which is counter to how he behaves with the two Salem women. That I found totally believable. How many of us judge our own families more harshly than we do strangers?
But as he left the Boothe home and began walking west, back to Mrs. Baldwin’s, he found himself thinking about his sister. Their father had wanted his daughters to be proper and ladylike. They were not expected to work outside on the farm, as most of their schoolmates did, but were supposed to spend their days spinning and weaving. Phoebe, a much more compliant girl than her sister, had done as her father wished. But Caroline hated it. She wanted to travel, perhaps go to Boston. She wanted more education. Her father refused her. No college would accept a woman, and anyway she’d only marry and have children so why waste any money upon her? Rees remembered scoffing at Caroline’s aspirations and telling her she was only a girl. He’d laughed at her attempts to write poetry. He wished now he had not been so heartless, and promised himself he would do better in the future. As he considered this, he realized that Caroline, even more than Lydia, would sympathize with Peggy.
This is the fourth book in the series. Once again, I’ve stumbled into the middle of the story. While the author mentions previous investigations and issues, this was a completely self-contained story. But I was still left wondering how a weaver/Revolutionary War soldier becomes a respected investigator. It seems to have happened during the war—one of the historical periods I’ve always been fascinated by—so that makes me want to find that first book in the series to read how it all began. How many times has this happened? Too, too many.
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Debbie Meldrum reads just about everything she can get her hands on. She was the short fiction editor for Apollo's Lyre and the Editor in Chief of the Pikes Peak Writers NewsMag. She's currently putting the finishing touches on her first novel.
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