The Devil's Cold Dish by Eleanor Kuhns is the 5th book in the Will Rees Mysteries series (Available June 14, 2016).
Family. You can’t live with them and you can’t kill them.
In this latest installment of Eleanor Kuhns’s long-running historical mystery series starring Revolutionary War vet Will Rees, the focus is squarely on family. Specifically on Will’s sister Caroline, who believes Will owes them a living now that her farm has been into the ground and her brain-damaged husband Sam can’t work. Will can’t help but feel guilty—Sam’s injury is the result of a blow he struck in self-defense—but at the same time, Caroline’s sense of entitlement and lack of work ethic exasperate him, especially when he finds out that every time she pays a “visit,” something goes missing. Like the odd chicken or two.
When Will Rees finally arrived home, much later than he’d expected, he found his sister Caroline in the front parlor. Again. Since Rees and his wife Lydia had returned from Salem several weeks ago, Caroline visited often and always with the same demand: that Rees support her family. Almost eight years ago, in the spring of 1789 he had surrendered his farm to his sister in exchange for the care of his then eight-year-old son, David. Caroline and Sam had not only used the farm so carelessly it still wasn’t as productive as it had been, they had beaten David. Treated him like a hired man instead of their nephew. Rees had sent his sister and her husband packing over two years ago, but Caroline still felt the farm should belong to her. And she was even more determined since last summer, when Rees’s punch had left her husband, Sam, touched in the head.
This time she’d brought Sam with her, no doubt to impress upon Rees his culpability in Sam’s disability.
“Look at him,” she was saying to Lydia when Rees paused in the doorway. “My husband has no more sense than an infant.” Although Rees did not like his sister putting pressure on his wife, his gaze went unwillingly to Sam. He was trying to catch dust motes floating through a patch of sunlight and humming quietly to himself. “I must mind him just as I would a child,” Caroline continued. “Sam can’t work or help at all.” The truth of that statement sent a quiver of shame through Rees, although he knew he’d had no choice. Sam had attacked Rees and would have beaten him bloody if not stopped.
Caroline isn’t the only family member causing anxiety for Will, however. David, who adores his father and has turned into a considerate, compassionate, and hard-working young man, is chafing against his father’s persistent view that he’s not quite grown up. We first see this when Constable Caldwell—who has no love for Will at all—shows up to report the murder of Zadoc Ward.
“What’s going on?” David asks and instead of answering his question. Will waves it off with, “I have to go out.”
David knows the only reason his father would go anywhere with Caldwell is because there’s a crime afoot, and he resents not being considered grown up enough to be a part of that conversation. As a result, he flashes a bit of temper—something he inherited from his father—and stomps off to the barn “to count the chickens” in the aftermath of his aunt and uncle’s visit.
But as it turns out, whatever family troubles Will has, they’re nothing compared to the dead man, as he and Constable Caldwell find out when they knock at his widow’s door.
These buildings were little more than crumbling hovels and the Ward home was more dilapidated than most. A wagon with a broken wheel occupied the front yard. Although the vehicle rested upon a tree stump as though the wheel was being repaired, the weathered wood and the tendrils of green creeping up the struts indicated a long stay in this position. Rees pulled up beside it. Then he jumped down and followed Caldwell to the splintered door. Bedraggled chickens fluttered away from him, clucking in distress.
The constable waited a long time before someone answered his knock. Finally a small child opened the door just wide enough to peer through. “I want to see your mother,” Caldwell said. The door closed with a quiet snap. Rees and the constable exchanged a glance. Something was wrong—no child should be that silent. After another few minutes of waiting the wooden barrier swung open.
Rees could not tell the age of the woman who stood there, her face was so swollen. Bruising closed one eye and purple finger marks circled her throat. “Mrs. Ward?” Caldwell said in horror. She nodded. Her mouth was puffy too and Rees thought it must hurt to speak. He wished he’d hit Ward harder this morning. “I have…” Caldwell hesitated as though unsure what word to use. “News. News of your husband. He’s dead.”
“Dead?” Her eyes rested on Rees and his tattered shirt without curiosity. When he met her eyes her hand came up to shield her face from his gaze. Welts formed a bracelet around her wrist. Rees glanced quickly away and then, realizing that might seem even more insulting, looked back at her.
No question, Zadoc had it coming—even Will had reason to wish him ill—but who shot him and left his body at the top of Little Knob? And, when the truth of Zadoc’s abuse comes out and Will questions family members about their knowledge of it, his own family situation is thrown in his face. And then this:
“He was my cousin and I did right by him,” Mac continued. “Without me, he wouldn’t have had even this. Or a job. His wife and kids was his responsibility and it wasn’t my fault he was a lazy drunkard. But I’m a Christian,” Mac added with a nod. “They can stay a week or two before they leave. That gives them time to bury Ward and gather their possessions.”
With family like that, who needs friends?
Not much time passes in between the Will Rees novels, so each book contains references to the previous books, not all of which are explained. But the core characters—the family of the books—remains constant, and fans of historical mysteries will find this a welcome addition to the established series.
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Katherine Tomlinson is a former reporter who prefers making things up. She was editor of Astonishing Adventures Magazine and the publisher of Dark Valentine Magazine. She edited the charity anthology Nightfalls. Her dark fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey, A Twist of Noir, Luna Station Quarterly, and Eaten Alive, as well as anthologies, including Weird Noir, Pulp Ink 2, Alt-Dead, Alt-Zombie, and the upcoming Grimm Futures, which she also edited. Her most recent collection of short stories is Suicide Blonde. She sees way too many movies.