Category Archives: Eleanor Kuhns

Because There’s Consequences For What We Do*

The ‘photo is of some of the cloth totes I use to do my grocery shopping. Last year, the voters of California, where I live, elected to ban single-use plastic bags, such as the ones that are often provided by grocery stores. On the one hand, using cloth totes, or using a personal trolley, certainly cuts down on the number of plastic bags that end up in landfills. This is, overall, good for the environment. And it’s no more difficult to fill a cloth tote or trolley than it is to put one’s groceries in single-use plastic bags. There are other benefits, too, to choosing cloth over plastic. What’s more, companies spend less when consumers provide their own bags. It’s a way, if you think about it, for them to save money without cutting down on the quality of what they sell.

But there have been some unintended consequences of this law. To take just one example, I recently attended a conference. Another delegate needed to do a bit of shopping; and, since I had my car at this conference, I offered to do the transportation. But a problem arose. Where was this delegate supposed to put the purchase? It couldn’t be left in my car. And taking everything through the conference venue wasn’t practicable. We managed by using my conference tote, which I’d brought with me by chance. But it would have been so much easier with plastic bags.

There’ve been other consequences, too. People who used those bags for lining trash cans, picking up after pets, wrapping things for the freezer, or other kinds of storage can’t do that now. Does this mean the law is wrong? No, not necessarily. It does mean there are a lot of unplanned consequences.

We certainly see that happen in a great deal of crime fiction. Something may be done for a laudable reason, but have all sorts of unintended consequences. For instance, in Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, Dr. Duca Lamberti is hired by wealthy engineer Pietro Auseri. He wants Lamberti to help his son, Davide, who’s developed severe depression and a serious drinking problem in the last year. Nothing seems to have been helpful, and Lamberti isn’t sure that he can do much good. But he agrees to try. And before long, he learns Davide’s story. It seems that, a year earlier, Davide had met a young woman, Alberta Radelli He gave her a lift, and they had spent a pleasant day together. Then, when the day ended, she begged him to let her stay with him. When he refused, she threatened to commit suicide. Not long afterwards, her body was found in a field, and it looked as though she made good on her threat. Now, Davide feels responsible for her death. Lamberti knows that the only way to help Davide is to find out what really happened to Alberta, so he decides to do just that. In this story, the unintended consequence of giving a young woman a lift turned out to be much more serious than it seemed at the time.

Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn is all about unintended consequences. Crime writer Martin Canning is waiting for a ticket to an afternoon radio comedy show in Edinburgh. As he waits, he sees a blue Honda hit the back of a silver Peugeot. The two drivers get out of their cars and begin to argue. Then, the Honda driver brandishes a bat and begins to attack the Peugeot driver, a man named Paul Bradley. Almost by instinct, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. On the one hand, that has very positive consequences. On the other, though, it draws Canning into a web of deception and murder that he hadn’t imagined.

Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move begins as science fiction writer Zack Walker moves his family from the city to a new suburban development, Valley Forest Estates. The new home is bigger and has more amenities than the city home that Walker and his family currently have. What’s more, it’s in a safer area, and the family will have more property. So, on the one hand, it’s a wise move. But it has unintended consequences. For one thing, Walker gets drawn into a couple of murders that take place in the new development, and the danger reaches to his family.  For another, his two children are miserable, and don’t fit in at all in their new school. It’s a clear case of something that seems positive on the surface, but causes all sorts of unexpected trouble.

In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the murder of a fifteen-year-old sex worker named Michelle Lucas. Morriss wants to find out as much as she can about the victim, and for that, she turns to Michelle’s friends. Michelle’s best friend was Vicki Flinn, also in the business. She starts off by being willing to help, but then goes missing. Then, another friend, Cassandra Swain, is badly beaten. Morriss does find out who killed Michelle and why. But as it turns out, taking what seems like the right step – connecting with the victim’s circle – has some very unpleasant unintended consequences.

And then there’s Eleanor Kuhns’ Cradle to Grave. It’s 1797 Maine, and itinerant weaver Will Rees has recently married Lydia Farrell, a former member of the Shaker community. One day, Lydia gets a letter from an old friend, Hannah ‘Mouse’ Moore, who’s still living with the Shaker community in upstate New York. Mouse is concerned about a group of children who live with their mother, Maggie Whitney. It seems that the children may be neglected, even abused. So, for their own safety, Mouse has taken them to the Shaker community. On the one hand, that means they’re safe. On the other, it gets Mouse into serious trouble for kidnapping, and casts a bad light on the Shakers. The Reeses go to New York to see what they can do to help, and with their intercession, the children are returned to their mother. Mouse will be disciplined, but allowed to remain in the community. And, at least she won’t be prosecuted and imprisoned. Then, Maggie Whitney is murdered. Mouse is, as you can imagine, the most likely suspect, but she claims to be innocent. The Reeses return to New York to try to clear their friend’s name if they can. In this case, all of Mouse’s attempts to help the children have had all sorts of negative consequences.

And that’s the thing about even very positive things. Everything has consequences, and sometimes, those consequences are both unexpected and negative. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Robert Cray’s Consequences.

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Filed under Eleanor Kuhns, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Kate Atkinson, Linwood Barclay, Maureen Carter

Bus Driver…Ambulance Man…Ticket Inspector*

occupationIt’s easy enough to imagine scenarios where fictional police detectives and PIs get involved in investigating crimes. So, a series that features a police officer or a PI makes sense and can be quite credible. It’s harder when the protagonist of a crime fiction series is an amateur detective.

Some professions do lend themselves to the role a bit more than others. For instance, there are lots of fictional academics who are amateur detectives. And it’s not hard to imagine scenarios where the sleuth is an academic (ahem – at least I hope it’s not…). The same might be said of fictional members of the clergy or their spouses/partners. Those people hear and see quite a bit, so it makes sense that they’d be involved in fictional investigations. There are also lots of fictional psychologists, medical professionals, attorneys and journalists who are also amateur sleuths. Again, it’s fairly credible that such people would be in a position to encounter and investigate a crime.

But there are some fictional amateur sleuths out there who have more unusual occupations. In those cases, the author has the challenge of creating a believable context for the sleuth. It’s not always easy to do, but some authors have achieved it.

One such sleuth is Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Harristeen. When this series begins, Harry is the postmistress for the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. She also runs a small farm. Later in the series, she steps aside as postmistress, and takes up cultivating a vineyard. This scenario – with Harry as postmistress, and also sleuth – works (at least for me) because it makes sense that, in a small town, people would gather at the post office, pick up their mail, and talk. This puts Harry in a very good position to know a lot about what’s going on. We also learn that her family has been in the area for generations. So, she’s ‘plugged in.’ There are some aspects of the series that aren’t as credible. But a postmistress as sleuth makes sense.

You wouldn’t expect a ticket-taker to be in a position to do sleuthing – at least not credibly – but that’s what happens in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, the first in her Garnethill trilogy. Maureen ‘Marui’ O’Donnell works in a low-paid job as a ticket-taker. She’s emotionally fragile (in fact, she spent some time in a mental health hospital). Still, she’s trying to get her life together. She even has a relationship with Douglas Brodie. He happens to be married, but she’s working on figuring out what she’s going to do. One morning, after a night of drinking, Mauri wakes to find Brodie’s body in her living room. As you can imagine, the police are not satisfied that she isn’t responsible. So, Mauri decides to clear her own name. And that’s the approach Mina takes to making Mauri a believable sleuth, although she’s neither a copper nor a PI.

Eleanor Kuhns’ historical (end of the 18th Century) series features Will Rees. He’s an itinerant weaver, who also has a small piece of property. On the surface of it, weaving isn’t the sort of occupation that would likely put someone in contact with murder. But in A Simple Murder, the first of this series, Kuhns sets up a credible context. In that novel, we learn that Rees is despondent over his first wife’s death. He puts his son, David, in the care of his sister, and goes off, working as a weaver where and when he can. Then, he finds out that David has been sent to a Shaker sect establishment, where he’s being mistreated. Rees rushes to do what he can for his son, only to be on the scene when there’s a murder. And, since the Shakers are a small and tightly-knit community, Rees can’t help but be drawn into the mystery as he tries to re-establish contact with his son. Slowly, as the series goes on, word gets around that Will Rees can find answers. So, he begins to build a reputation.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a Melbourne accountant-turned-baker, who lives and works in a large, Roman-style building called Insula. When the series begins (with Earthly Delights), Chapman has no desire to be a sleuth or to solve mysteries. But she gets drawn into investigating a series of heroin overdoses that might not be as accidental as they seem. It all starts when one overdose happens right outside Chapmen’s own bakery. Then, someone starts targeting the people who live in Insula. Chapman wants to find out who that person is, and her new lover, Daniel Cohen (he volunteers for a mobile soup kitchen), wants to find out what’s behind the overdoses. So, they agree to help one another.

There’s also D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heathington. He’s a retired milliner, who’s moved to the village of Tuesbury. You might not think that a milliner would likely come across a lot of bodies. But Heatherinton has a keen eye for his clients, and a good sense of what makes them ‘tick.’ So, in Hats Off to Murder, he becomes more than curious when two of his clients die. There’s no obvious evidence that they were murdered, but some things just don’t add up. Then, a new client, Delilah Delibes, asks for his help tracking down her mother, Flora, who’s gone missing. Heatherington is not a professional sleuth, and doesn’t pretend to have investigative skills. But he is compassionate. And he’s curious. So, he works with Delilah to find out what happened to her mother. And, in the process, he finds out how and why his clients died.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte, who is a genealogist. His specialty is tracing people’s ancestry, not finding killers. But sometimes, secrets from the past have a way of haunting modern families. So Tayte runs into more than one murder as he searches for his clients’ roots.

For authors who create amateur sleuths, it can be a challenge to create a credible context for those sleuths to ask questions and investigate. When it’s done well, though, it can work. And there really are some interesting occupations out there in crime-fiction land.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Clash’s Career Opportunities.

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Filed under D.S. Nelson, Denise Mina, Eleanor Kuhns, Kerry Greenwood, Rita Mae Brown, Steve Robinson

Call Up the Craftsmen, Bring Me the Draftsmen*

HandmadeThere’s something about handmade, custom-created things. There’s a personal touch that you don’t see in machine-made products. And when you’re fortunate enough to have something custom made, you know what a difference that extra effort and personal touch can make. Before the advent of the assembly line, a lot of things were handmade, but that’s not as true now. So when you can get something handmade, the experience can be all the richer.

Handmade and custom-made products add richness to crime fiction, too. There are, of course, historical series such as Eleanor Kuhns’ that feature handmade things. Her Will Rees is an itinerant weaver whose trade is a part of this series. And this is by no means the only example.

But there are also books and series set in modern times that include people who create handmade and custom-made things. For example, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels take place mostly among the Navajo people. The Navajo Nation is noted for exquisite weaving, so Navajo blankets and rugs are well-made and beautiful, too. If you know where to go, you can actually find some that are made traditionally (i.e. not just produced for tourists). In People of Darkness, for instance, Chee, who is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, is looking for a man named Tomas Charley, who may have valuable information on a case he’s investigating. He learns that Charley will be attending a rug auction at a local elementary school, and goes there. The rug auction is a regular way for local weavers to sell their wares, and for those handmade products to be available to successful bidders. It’s not the sort of thing that you find at a roadside tourist stop. But for those who know, there’s nothing like a custom-made rug or blanket.

Handmade rugs also feature in Anthony Bidulka’s Date With a Sheesha. In that novel, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets a new client. Pranav Gupta wants to know what happened to his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ The younger Gupta had been on a trip to the Middle East to give a series of lectures on antique carpets, and to get some samples of traditionally-made carpets for the University of Saskatoon’s permanent collection. He was killed in what police said was a tragic, but unplanned, murder by local thugs in an open-air market. But Pranav Gupta thinks otherwise, and sends Bidulka to the Middle East to find out the truth.

If you enjoy baked goods, then you know that it’s hard to match the quality of fresh-baked, homemade bakery items. That’s part of the reason why Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is successful with her bakery, Earthly Delights. She is dedicated to making real breads with proper ingredients, and she knows the difference between machine-produced bread and handmade bread. And her apprentice, Jason Wallace, is just as dedicated. His specialty is muffins, and his work is of such quality that one of his nicknames is ‘The Muffin Man.’ When a competitor from a large chain called Best Fresh moves in down the street in Trick or Treat, we see just how seriously these two take their work. Best Fresh may be a larger company, but the cooks there are more technicians than they are real bakers, and that difference shows in the product.

D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington knows the value of handmade, custom-created products, too. He is a former milliner, who ran the family business for several years in London. Now he’s retired to the village of Tuesbury, where he still makes hats to order – discreetly, of course, so as not to arouse too much interest from the local council. After all, he’s not technically supposed to have a business on his home property. But anyone who has a Heatherington hat knows how well worth it that extra effort is. Heatherington creates hats from the right materials, and always with his client’s needs and wishes foremost in mind. He’s quite observant, too, which makes him not only a skilled milliner, but also a very apt amateur detective…

Fans of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish novels will know that he has unofficially apprenticed himself to cabinetmaker Charlie Taub. Both of them know the value of careful workmanship and the right wood. They tease each other, but they both respect the effort it takes to do a cabinet job the right way – by hand.

And then there’s Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen’s Benjamin Cooker. He and his assistant Virgile Lanssien are wine experts, and they know what it takes to make great wine. Certainly there are machines and technology used in the process, but at the same time, the real key to fine wine is the personal touch of the vintner. Properly made wine doesn’t taste ‘mass produced,’ and these amateur sleuths know that. In this series, along with the mysteries, readers also get a look at the way wine is made, and the many subtleties that the personal touch adds to the final product.

There are other series, too, that feature characters who make handmade and custom-made items. There’s Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting mysteries, which feature Beatrice Coleman. She’s retired from her work as an Atlanta folk art curator, and has moved to Dappled Hills, North Carolina, where she’s joined a local quilting guild, the Village Quilters. In this series, readers get a look at the Southern tradition of handmade quilts. And there are Beth Groundwater’s Claire Hanover novels, which feature custom-made gift baskets. Those are only two examples; there are many others.

Although today’s technology certainly has its place, there really is something about handmade and custom-made items. Perhaps it’s because so much is machine-made that we really appreciate it when something is made just for us.

 

ps. The ‘photo shows you what I mean. This set of bookshelves was handmade by a friend who’s, among other things, a skilled carpenter. I love it, not least because of the careful workmanship that went into it. What?! Can’t a girl find a solution to the TBR problem? 😉

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars.

 

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Beth Groundwater, D.S. Nelson, Eleanor Kuhns, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Kerry Greenwood, Noël Balen, Peter Temple, Tony Hillerman

Go Where You Wanna Go*

ItinerantMost of us have a fixed place to live. It may not be where we grew up, or where we think of as ‘home,’ but it’s the place we return to when the work day is done. When we fill out forms, we have an address to include. But that’s not true of everyone. There are many people who have, as the saying goes, no fixed abode. They travel from place to place, never staying anywhere very long. They’re often on the fringes of society, too.

Groups like this can be insular, since they don’t often make a lot of connections with people not in the group. What’s more, ‘outsiders’ often don’t trust them, and the feeling is usually mutual. So when they’re involved in cases of murder, it can be especially difficult for the police to investigate. It doesn’t help matters that the police are often (‘though certainly not always) biased against itinerants. The whole dynamic can make for a very effective crime novel, given the realities of not having one particular place to live, and the feelings that others have about that.

One such group of people is the group of migrant farm workers. At least in the US, they move from place to place, working a few weeks or months on one farm or in one area, and then moving on. They follow harvests, and when their services are no longer needed, they’re expected to leave.

We see this lifestyle in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. That’s the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers who’ve been forced to leave their last place of employment and move on to the next. Lennie, who is of limited intelligence, was wrongly accused of attempted rape when he wouldn’t let go of a young woman’s dress. He says that he just enjoyed stroking it because it was soft, but that’s not how the young woman saw it. When George and Lennie get to their new jobs, they are checked in, given places to sleep, and introduced to the boss’ son, Curly. He’s arrogant, spiteful and rude – not a person you want to cross. As they settle in and try to do a good job, we see how migrant workers have traditionally been treated. And when tragedy befalls the farm, we see how their migrant status affects both men.

The Roma people, too, have a tradition of moving around and staying nowhere for very long. Stef Penney explores life among these people in The Invisible Ones. In that novel, Leon Janko hires PI Ray Lovell to find his daughter Rose, who’s been missing for seven years. At first Lovell demurs, saying that missing person cases aren’t his area of expertise. But Janko insists, and then explains that he wants Lovell because Lovell is half Roma.
 

‘You’re always who you are, even sitting here in your office, behind your fancy desk. You’re one of us.’
 

Janko says that Lovell will be able to talk to people in ways that gorijos (non-Roma) will not. Finally Lovell is persuaded to look into the matter. He’s soon dismayed by the resistance he gets from the Jankos, especially considering that it was Leon Janko who hired him. It’s soon clear that they’re hiding something that may very well relate to Rose’s disappearance. As Lovell investigates further, readers get a real sense of what life is like for people who never live anywhere for very long.

In Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich, a Roma girl who allegedly fell into a canal from a Venice roof after robbing an apartment in the building. Brunetti begins to wonder just how accidental the girl’s death was, though, and investigates. His search for the truth leads him to the Roma encampment near the city. As he tries to work with the victim’s people, we see what their lives are like, and why they have very little reason to trust Brunetti, at least at first.

You might not think of it right away, but circus workers are also often itinerant. They may stay for a couple of months in one place, but they spend much of their time ‘on the road.’ That’s what we see, for instance, in Catriona McPherson’s The Winter Ground. The Cooke family circus is happy that they’ve been given permission to stay on the Blackcraig Estate for the winter. As compensation, they’ve agreed to do a few shows for the wealthy Wilson family, who own the place. There are some concerns about having ‘those kinds of people’ around for the winter, but Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver’s two sons couldn’t be happier; they want to see the circus. Then, some nasty events begin to happen in the circus, and Mrs. Cooke wants an end to it. She asks Dandy to investigate. Things go from bad to worse when Anastasia ‘Ana,’ the bareback horse rider, falls from her mount and is killed. At first it looks like a terrible accident, but it’s not long before Dandy begins to believe it was murder.

A circus also plays a role in Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes. New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he sees a young woman about to jump off a bridge. He stops her just in time, and takes her to a nearby all-night diner, where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Her mother died when she was two years old; otherwise, her life had been a more or less happy one until recently. In a very strange series of events, Harlan Reid met a man named Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who, as he himself puts it, is cursed with being able to predict the future. Despite warnings, and against his daughter’s wishes, Reid began to visit Tompkins more and more often, whenever he was faced with an important decision. Now Tompkins has predicted that Reid will die on a certain night at midnight. Reid firmly believes that it will happen, and Jean can no longer tolerate the stress. Shawn decides to help her if he can, and takes her to his boss, McManus, to see what the police can do. After all, since Reid is a wealthy man, this could simply be a scam to get his money. That part of the investigation leads to an itinerant circus and another murder investigation. In the meantime, Shawn tries to protect the Reids as well as he can, in case the threat to the family is real. Among other things, this novel offers a glimpse of what it means to travel in a circus, and how ‘circus people’ are viewed from the outside.

Of course, there are some fictional sleuths, too, who don’t really have a ‘regular’ home. Yes, I mean you, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Eleanor Kuhn’s Will Rees is another example of a sleuth who’s a bit of an itinerant. He’s a late-18th Century weaver who goes from place to place on commission. He’s recently married Lydia Farrell, a former member of the Shaker sect. As the series goes on, it’ll be interesting to see how his roving life changes.

Itinerant people often live outside the realm of what we think of as ‘normal.’ They usually have relatively few possessions or connections, and they have a unique culture based on moving around. Perhaps that’s part of what makes them such interesting characters in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by John Phillips, made famous by The Mamas and the Papas. See whether you like that version or the recording done by The Fifth Dimension better.

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Filed under Catriona McPherson, Cornell Woolrich, Donna Leon, Eleanor Kuhns, John Steinbeck, Lee Child, Stef Penney

In The Spotlight: Eleanor Kuhns’ Cradle to Grave

>In The Spotlight: Josephine Tey's The Man In The QueueHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Historical mysteries can shed interesting light not just on an era, but also the lifestyles, customs and culture of the people who lived then. Eleanor Kuhns’ Will Rees series is like that, so let’s take a closer look at one of those novels today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Cradle to Grave, the third in the series.

Rees is an itinerant weaver who lives in 1797 Maine. He’s recently married Lydia Farrell, a former member of the Shaker sect, and is beginning to wonder how he’ll get used to staying in one place for any length of time. Then, Lydia gets a distressing letter from an old friend Hannah ‘Mouse’ Moore, who is still with the Shakers in their community near Dover Springs, in upstate New York.

Not far from Dover Springs lies the home and small farm of Maggie Whitney, a widowed mother of five children. Mouse is concerned about the children because she believes they’re being neglected, perhaps even abused. It seems that Maggie is overly fond of the bottle and in any case, isn’t able to care for the children by herself. Nothing’s been done about it though. So Mouse got desperate enough to take the children herself and bring them to the Shaker community. That of course means an accusation of kidnapping for Mouse. The children have been returned to their mother and Mouse has been confined to the Shaker property for the time being.

But she still worries about the children, and she wants Lydia to see they’re all right. Will is happy enough to be on the road again, so he and Lydia go to Dover Springs. When they get there, they find an unrepentant Mouse, and a Shaker leader, Elder Herman, who is very concerned about stirring up simmering resentment against the community. There’s not much that Will and Lydia can do about Mouse’s case; she does, after all, admit to taking the children. But they check to be sure the children are all right.

They’re on their way back to Maine when they hear even worse news: Maggie Whitney has been murdered. Mouse is a prime suspect in many people’s minds. Lydia persuades her husband to return with her Dover Springs to see what they can do to help their friend and look after the children.

Many people in the town seem all too eager to blame Mouse and be done with the whole thing. But Lydia is convinced she is innocent. Will doesn’t think she’s guilty either, and there are some things about that explanation that just don’t add up. So he and Lydia start to ask questions. Before long, they find that more than one person in town has some ‘dirty laundry’ to hide. And there are layers to Maggie’s history, and the town’s, that have to be peeled away to get to the truth.

In the meantime, the Shakers are very worried about the outcome of this case. They have enough difficulty as it is dealing with intolerence; they are not interested in having gossip go round that one of their own is a killer. If the case isn’t solved quickly, they could be in danger. Lydia may no longer be a member of their group, but she doesn’t want to see them harrassed either. So she and Will continue to investigate. They find that this murder has everything to do with past local history.

The novel takes place in 1797, so the memories of the American Revolution aren’t that far distant. There’s still talk of who had Loyalist leanings and who didn’t. Travel is difficult and expensive; for instance, it takes Will and Lydia two weeks to get from Maine to upstate New York. Accommodations at inns aren’t really luxurious; nor are the living conditions for anyone who’s not wealthy. But at the same time, there’s a middle class, and it’s possible to live safely and comfortably.

Kuhns gives readers a look at artisan skills such as spinning, weaving and barrel-making. There’s also a portrait of life in a small town in a time when many such places were more or less isolated, especially in bad winter weather. Everyone knows everyone, and the townspeople are more or less interdependent. While Lydia and Will are not seen as dangerous (by most people), they are definitely not ‘one of us,’ and they have to tread lightly, as the saying goes, and remember their places as ‘outsiders.’ There are also interesting perspectives on other attitudes and aspects of life just before the turn of the 19th Century, but mentioning them might stray too close to ‘spoiler’ territory.

We also see a bit of what life was like in a Shaker community. The Shakers are peaceful enough people, but they’re a closed group. Members are celibate and are expected to be obedient to the guidance of the Elders. It is, as Elder Herman says, a difficult life – not for everyone. For many locals, the problem with the Shakers is that they are pacificists. They refused to fight during the American Revolution and to many people, that’s tantamount to treason. While the action in the novel doesn’t really take place on the grounds of the Shaker property, readers do get a sense of what it’s like to live there.

The characters of Will and Lydia Rees are also important elements in this story. They love each other very much, but that doesn’t mean they don’t see each other’s faults. Will is dealing with his troubled relationship with his son David. Lydia has her own history and of course, concerns about being David’s stepmother. She also has a habit of being a bit quick to act when caution might be wiser. But they rely on each other and it’s clear that they don’t intend to let their differences get the better of them.

You can’t really call this a cosy; it has a bit more ‘bite’ than a true cosy. But at the same time, readers who dislike a lot of violence in their crime fiction will be pleased to know that there isn’t much of it in this story. Most of the violence that happens is ‘off stage.’

This is, as I mentioned, the third novel in the Will Rees series. But readers who are concerned about starting partway into a series will be pleased to know that it’s not difficult to pick up the main pieces of Will’s story. There are references to prior stories, and those who’ve read those novels will notice them. But that said, the stories aren’t re-told, if I can put it that way.

Cradle to Grave gives a look at New England life at the end of the 18th Century. It features a mystery that makes sense given the context, and a pair of sleuths who work together, each with a different kind of expertise. The novel shows the sometimes-harsh realities of life for widows, orphans and the poor, and gives readers a glimpse ‘behind the closed doors’ of the Shaker community. But what’s your view? Have you read Cradle to Grave? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday 26 January/Tuesday 27 January – The Killing of Emma Gross – Damien Seaman

Monday 2 February/Tuesday 3 February – The Gingerbread House – Carin Gerhardsen

Monday 9 February/Tuesday 10 February – The Cornish Coast Murder – John Bude

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Filed under Cradle to Grave, Eleanor Kuhns