Book Review: A Circle of Dead Girls by Eleanor Kuhns @EleanorKuhns @severnhouse @partnersincr1me

A Circle of Dead Girls
A Will Rees Mystery #8
Eleanor Kuhns
Severn House, March 2020
ISBN 978-0-7278-9008-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

In the spring of 1800, a traveling circus arrives in town. Rees is about to attend, but sees his nemesis, Magistrate Hanson in the crowd, and leaves. On the way home he meets a party of Shaker brothers searching for a missing girl. They quickly come across her lifeless body thrown into a farmer’s field.

Rees begins investigating and quickly becomes entranced by the exotic circus performers, especially the beautiful young tightrope walker.

Other murders follow. Who is the killer? One of the circus performers? One of the townspeople? Or One of the Shakers?

Will Rees is a conflicted man. Accused of murder, he and his family fled their town and ended up on a farm in a Shaker community near the town of Durham where they now live safely but Will detests farming. What he does enjoy is being a traveling weaver and, now that spring has come to Maine, he’ll be heading out soon. First, though, he’s attracted to Asher’s Circus and has gone to town to see it. While he does get to see a couple of amazing acts, he’s soon forced to head back home.

On the way, Will runs into a small group of Shaker men who are searching for a missing teenaged orphan, Leah, and he agrees to help look for her; they very quickly find her, dead, clearly murdered. Because he has established a reputation for solving crimes, Will is soon following leads but his interest in the circus, and one performer in particular, distracts him from his investigation while his absence from home is leaving his wife, Lydia, with the burden of his normal farming work. It seems that Will might not be able to carry out his accepted duty and stay focused so well this time but the twists in the case and the memory of the murdered girl won’t let him ignore it all for long.

One of the highlights of this tale, for me, was learning a little about the sort of circus that existed in 1800, before trains and big tents. In my opinion, this series is one that has been greatly underappreciated and deserves much more attention. The stories are intriguing, the characters are vividly drawn and appealing and Ms. Kuhns is a good writer. While I haven’t read every book in the series and it’s natural that reading in order gives a better understanding of the settings and primary players, each one has a self-contained story and is very satisfying. Give it a try!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2020.

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Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon // Indiebound

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An Excerpt from A Circle of Dead Girls

Chapter 1

As if God Himself had taken a hand, winter abruptly changed to spring. The six inches of snow that had fallen just last week – the third week of April – was melting in the suddenly balmy air. Instead of hard packed snow, the roads were surfaced in slush and mud. Only on the north sides of the slopes and under the trees did snow remain and even there green spears poked through the white.

Rees had already planted peas and in a few weeks he would begin plowing the rocky fields. He sighed. Although glad to see the spring, he did not like to think about the coming backbreaking toil. He would turn forty this year and his dislike of farm work had, if anything, intensified. His father had died at the age of forty-six, while Rees was away serving with General Washington in the War for Independence, and sometimes he wondered if six years was all he had left. Six years with his arms up to their elbows in mud and manure. Just the thought of it pressed down like a heavy weight. He didn’t think he could bear it.

At least, with the coming warmer weather, he could look forward to a few weeks of freedom as he traveled these roads weaving for the farm wives. Besides the cash he would earn, he looked forward to what he imagined as sunlit days of freedom from the farm.

With a shake of his head, he pushed the gloomy thoughts from his mind. Now he was on his way into town. For the past several days men had been shouting up and down the lanes and byways: Asher’s Circus was coming to town. Rees had brought his children to the Surry road yesterday to watch the circus arrive. First came a man in a scarlet coat and top hat riding a bay. Bells jingled on his harness and feathers danced upon his head. Two carriages followed, the beautiful women seated inside leaning through the curtained windows to wave and blow kisses. At least five wagons followed, wagons that were unlike any that Rees had ever seen. These vehicles looked like the carriages but were bigger and taller and the curtains at their small windows were shut. On every wagon door a bright gold rearing horse glittered in the sunlight. Finally, clowns with colored patches painted over their eyes and vivid clothing walked alongside. One was a dwarf with a pig and a dog and the other a giant of a man. While the little man turned cartwheels, the big fellow walked straight ahead barely acknowledging the crowds lining the street.

Rees’s children were beyond excited, jumping and shouting beside the road. Even Rees, a cosmopolitan traveler who’d visited several large cities, had been enchanted. After a long winter kept mostly inside and occupied solely with mending tack and other chores he was ready for some entertainment.

Now he was on his way into town to see a performance. A sudden wash of muddy water splattered, not only the wagon, but him as well. He swore at the young sprig galloping by, so intent on reaching Durham that he paid no attention to those he passed. But Rees was not really angry. A circus was a grand event and he guessed he could extend a little charity to the eager farmer’s boy. Rees knew Lydia would have liked to join him, and probably the children as well, but no lady would be seen at such rude entertainment, so she must rely on his descriptions.

The streets of Durham were thronged with traffic. Wagons jostled for space next to horses and mules. Pedestrians were forced to cling to the side of the buildings lest they be trampled underfoot. Rees shook his head in amazement; he had never seen the streets so crowded.

And Rouge’s inn! The yard swarmed with horses and shouting men. Rees’s hope – that he could leave his horse and wagon there – died. When he turned down an alley that went to the jail, he found this narrow lane almost as impassible. But he could already see a tall structure in the field that the Durham farmers usually used for Saturday market. It was so early in the season that market was just beginning. Later in the spring the grounds would be in use every Saturday.

Finally, Rees parked his wagon and horse at the jail. He watered Hannibal from a nearby trough and joined the mob streaming toward the large field. Affluent townsmen rubbed shoulders with sunburned farmers in straw hats and dirty clogs. At first, except for the arena built in the center, the fairgrounds looked exactly as normal: an occasional ramshackle hut interspersed with large areas of open ground. The farmers usually set up their wares in one of those small squares; this was how Lydia sold her butter and cheese. Rees lifted his eyes to the tall wooden structure, dazzling with colorful flags flying around the roof, that dominated the field. At first, he did not notice how peculiar the building looked. But as he approached the flimsy construction, the lack of any windows, and the slapdash roof became apparent. An arc of roofed wooden vehicles – the circus wagons – curved around the back.

At several yards distant he could see gaps between the splintered boards that made up the walls. Posters, all designed with a crude woodcut of a horse, papered over the widest of cracks. Rees directed his steps to a bill posted on the wall and paused in front of it. “Asher’s Circus”, he read. “Mr. Joseph Asher, trained by Mr. Phillip Astley and Mr. John B. Ricketts, and just arrived from tours of London, Philadelphia, Boston, and Albany, is pleased to present daring feats of horsemanship, the world -famous rope dancer Bambola, clowns after the Italian fashion and many more acts to amaze and delight.”

Rees grunted, his eyes moving to the bottom. Names and dates scribbled in by different hands, and then crossed off, filled all the white space with the last being Durham, show time five o’clock. Since he didn’t recognize most of the names, he suspected they were for very small villages, not the cities mentioned above. Mr. Asher clearly had grandiose aspirations.

Rees walked around to the front. An opening was screened by a shabby blue curtain, dyed in streaks and with the same look as the boards- used over and over for a long time. Now more curious than ever, he bent down and peered through the gap at the bottom. He could hear the sound of hooves and as he peeked under the curtain he saw the skinny brown legs of a galloping horse thud past.

‘I really must begin my journey.’ Piggy Hanson’s whiny drawl sent Rees’s head whipping around. What the Hell was Piggy doing here? Rees had not seen Hanson, or anyone else from his hometown of Dugard, Maine, for almost two years, not since the magistrate had written an arrest warrants for Lydia – witchcraft – and for Rees – murder. His family had had to flee for their lives. He did not think he would ever forgive the people involved, especially the magistrate who had enabled the persecution. Rage swept over Rees and he turned to look around for the other man.

He saw his nemesis – they’d been enemies since boyhood – standing in a cluster of gentlemen, their cigar smoke forming a cloud around them. With every intention of punching the other man, Rees took a few steps in his direction, but then his anger succumbed to his more rational mind. He did not want Piggy Hanson to know he lived here now and anyway there were far too many men for him to take on by himself.

‘I must leave for the next town on my circuit, you know,’ Hanson continued. A magistrate for a large district, he regularly traveled from town to town ruling on judicial issues. He knew Rees was innocent of murder, Rees was certain of it, but he suspected he would still be treated as though he was guilty. And he doubted he could behave with any civility at all, not with this man. He cast around for a hiding place and, quicker than thought, he dashed behind the blue curtain.

He swiftly moved away from the portal, pressing himself against the wooden wall so that no one who came through the curtain could immediately see him. Then he inhaled a deep breath and looked around.

Stones carried in from the field outside marked off a roughly circular ring. The galloping horse thundered past, a woman in a short red frock standing on the saddle. At first scandalized to see the woman’s legs knee to ankle, Rees’s shock quickly turned to admiration. She stood on the saddle in comfort, her red dress and white petticoats fluttering in the breeze. Puffs of dust from the horse’s hooves sifted into the air.

‘Pip,’ said a voice from above. Rees looked up. A rope had been stretched tautly across the width of the enclosure and a woman in a white dress and stockings stood upon it. She wore white gloves but no hat and her wavy dark hair curled around her face. Rees stared in amazement as her white feet slid across the line. She was totally focused upon her task and did not give any indication she saw him. ‘Pip,’ she said again, and went into a flood of French mixed with some other language. Rees understood enough to know she was complaining about the rope.

This, he thought, must be Bambola, the ropewalker, crossing the sky above his head. She was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. As her white dress fluttered around her, all he could think of was angels.

‘Bon.’ A man Rees had not noticed detached himself from the wall and moved forward. He was easily as tall as Rees, if not taller, and lanky. His hair was a peculiar reddish black color. In French he assured the rope dancer that he would fix the rope in a minute.

Holding up his hand, he moved toward the ring. The equestrienne dropped down to the saddle, first riding astride and then moving one leg across so she rode sidesaddle. She pulled the horse to a stop and jumped down with none of the hesitation of a lady. She conferred with Pip for a few moments in tones too low for Rees to hear and then she went out the opening at the back. The man leaped easily into the saddle and urged the horse again into a gallop. He stood in the saddle, balancing even more easily than his female partner, and then, in one fluid motion, dropped to the saddle to stand on his hands. His lean body formed a long streak toward the sky. Rees gasped in amazement. Then the performer began jumping from one face of the saddle to the other, riding diagonally on each side with his feet pointing at the horse’s hindquarters. He was even more skilled than the woman and Rees was so enthralled he forgot why he was there and lost all track of time.

Finally, Pip moved his long body into the saddle and slowed the horse to a walk. He dismounted and, taking hold of the bridle, began to walk the animal around the ring. ‘You,’ he shouted at Rees in a heavy French accent, ‘get out. You must pay.’

Rees half-nodded, listening to the chatter floating over the wall; he could still hear Piggy talking outside, his high-pitched voice carrying over the lower tones of the other men. ‘I didn’t sneak in to see the show,’ Rees told the circus performer in a near-whisper. ‘There’s someone outside I don’t want to meet.’ With a grin – he could also hear Piggy – the other man turned and pointed to the curtain at the back. Rees struck across the ring for the screen. Disappointment – for now he would not be able to stay and enjoy the show – fell heavy upon his shoulders. Another crime to put at Piggy’s door.

Before he dropped the cloth over the opening Rees turned to look back over his shoulder. Now the tall man was scrambling up the pole to the small landing above. Rees wondered if the talented rider was a rope dancer as well as an equestrian but he did not go all the way up. Instead, as the girl withdrew to the landing on the other side, Pip began working with fittings. The rope vibrated.

Rees dropped the curtain and looked around. He found himself in the cluster of the circus carriages, horses, and hurrying people. A dwarf wearing a clown’s short ruffled red pants and with red triangles drawn in around his eyes hurried past, quickly followed by a slender fellow with oiled black hair and an aggressive black mustache streaked with gray. The performance would begin soon. No one took the slightest notice of Rees as he threaded his way through the circus performers.

Close to, the wagons looked beat up, scarred with use. Most of the gold horses on the wagon doors were simply paint and the few that were carved wood or sculpted metal were losing their gilding. Rees distinctly saw the tell- tale red of rust fringing the head of one rearing stallion.

He broke into a run. He would never have expected to meet the Magistrate here in this tiny Maine town. And he prayed Hanson would leave soon. Rees would not dare to return until he could be sure that Piggy Hanson was gone.

Leaving Durham proved just as challenging as entering town in the first place. The streets seemed even more congested now than they had been earlier. Abandoning the main road once again, Rees turned down a side street on the southern side of town. There was a narrow lane, little more than a footpath, that went east, from Durham to the Surry Road. He could follow Surry Road north past the Shaker community and then to his own farm. If he could just reach the lane. The side street was packed with wagons coming from the farms on the southern side of town. It took Rees much longer than it should have to drive the few blocks before he was finally able to turn.

But from what he could see of this winding track, there was little traffic here. Because of the narrow and twisty nature of this lane most of the traffic was on foot. Only a few vehicles were heading into town. Congratulating himself on his foresight, Rees settled himself more comfortably on the hard wooden seat. If one were not in a hurry, this was a pleasant ride through the stands of budding trees and lichen spotted boulders. He glanced at the sky; he’d reach home before it was entirely dark. And, although he had not been able to attend the circus, at least he’d seen enough to make a good story to tell Lydia and the children.

The wagon trundled around the last steep sharp curve. From here the road straightened out, cutting through farmland until it reached Surry Road.

And ahead was a group of Shaker Brothers, walking towards him. Rees was surprised to see them. A devout group that rarely left their well-ordered community, they surely could not be walking into Durham for the circus. He slowed to a stop and jumped to the ground.

Chapter 2

The group of men resolved into individual faces. One man, Brother Daniel, Rees knew well. Daniel had been the caretaker of the boys when Rees and his family had sought refuge here two years ago. Promoted to Elder since then, Daniel was beginning to look much older than his almost thirty years. He’d lost the roundness to his cheeks, his face now appearing almost gaunt, and the gray appearing in his hair made him look as though he were fading like a piece of old cloth. Rees, who’d recently discovered white hairs on his chin and chest, felt a spasm of sympathy.

Now worried lines furrowed Daniel’s forehead. ‘Rees,’ he said. ‘If I may request your assistance?’

‘Of course,’ he said immediately. ‘What do you need?’ Not only was his wife a former Shaker but the members of Zion had helped him more times than he could count.

‘When you came through town did you see a Shaker lass?’ Daniel’s normally quiet voice trembled with fear and desperation. Rees shook his head. He had seen few women or children and none clothed in the sober Shaker garb.

‘What happened? Did she run off to see the circus?’

‘Yes,’ Daniel said with a nod. ‘With one of the boys.’

‘Shem,’ said Brother Aaron. Rees knew the cantankerous old man well. and was surprised to see him here, searching for the girl. Although a Shaker, Aaron was not always kind or compassionate. ‘I fear he was easily led by that girl,’ he added, confirming Rees’s judgement.

‘Apparently they took off right after our noon dinner,’ Daniel continued, ignoring the other man. ‘We wouldn’t know that much but for the fact Shem was almost late for supper.’

‘Well, have you asked him where she is?’

‘Shem had nothing to do with it,’ Aaron said sharply at the same instant Daniel spoke.

‘Of course we did. We aren’t fools.’

Rees held up his hands in contrition. The Shakers were usually the most even-tempered of people. He knew Daniel’s testiness was a measure of his worry. ‘What did he say?’

‘That they were separated.’

‘Shem wanted to see the circus horses,’ Aaron said.

‘Leah wanted to come home,’ Daniel explained, throwing an irritated glance at his fellow Shaker. ‘Well, they wouldn’t allow a woman to enter such a rude entertainment, would they? She was probably bored-.’

‘He is horse mad,’ Aaron interjected.

‘Please Aaron,’ Daniel said in a sharp voice, staring at his fellow in exasperation. Aaron acknowledged the rebuke with a nod and Daniel continued. ‘How could Leah have been so lost to all propriety as to imagine she would be allowed entry, I don’t know.’ For a moment his frustration with the girl overshadowed his fear. ‘What was she thinking? I’m not surprised that rapscallion Shem would behave so carelessly but Leah is soon to sign the Covenant and join us as a fully adult member. The amusements of the World should hold no attraction for her.’

Rees shook his head in disagreement. He didn’t blame the girl. He thought that this was exactly the time when she would want to see something outside the kitchen. After all, he was a man, well used to traveling, and seeing the circus had made him long to pack his loom in his wagon and go.

‘Like all women, she is flighty,’ Aaron said, frowning in condemnation. ‘Attracted to sins of -.’

‘Did you search Zion?’ Rees interrupted.

‘No,’ Daniel said. ‘When we couldn’t find the children, we suspected they’d left . . .’ His voice trailed away and he looked from side to side as though expecting the girl to spring up beside him.

‘Perhaps she just wanted to go home to her family,’ Rees suggested.

‘She has no family,’ Daniel said curtly. ‘Neither of those children do. Shem is an orphan and Leah has lived with us since she was a baby. Her mother brought her to us and died soon after. Leah knows no other family but us. She would not leave our community.’

All the more reason for her to want to experience something of the world, Rees thought but he kept his opinion to himself. ‘I drove to town on the main road,’ he said aloud. ‘I did not see any children at all.’

‘When was that?”

“About four,’ Rees replied.

Daniel nodded and rubbed a shaking hand over his jaw. ‘You were on the road too late, I think. The children left the village right after noon dinner.’

‘That means they would have been on the main road between one and two,’ Rees said. ‘Depending on their speed.’ And if Leah had parted from Shem and started home by two-thirty or three, walking either road, she would have reached Zion by four. Four-thirty at the latest. Anxiety for the girl tingled through him. He thought of his own children and the kidnapping of his daughter last winter with a shudder of remembered terror. ‘I’ll help you search,’ he said. ‘The more of us the better.’ He already feared this search would not have a good outcome.

Daniel turned to two of the younger Brothers. ‘Search along the road,’ he said. ‘And hurry. We have less than an hour of daylight left.’ They started down the lane, moving toward town at a run.

Rees looked up at the sky. The fiery ball was almost at the horizon, and long low rays streamed across the earth in ribbons of gold. In thirty – maybe forty minutes the sun would drop below the western hill and the pink and purple streamers across the sky would fade into black. ‘I’ll park the wagon,’ he said, jumping into the seat.

He pulled it to the ditch on the left side and jumped down, looking around him as he did so. Farmer Reynard had planted the sloping fields on Rees’s right; buckwheat probably given the sloping and rocky nature of the ground. But on the left the buckwheat straw from last year stood almost four feet high, waiting to be cut down and then turned over into the soil. Rees inspected that field thoughtfully. Tall thick stems such as that could hide a girl who did not want to be found. ‘We should check the fields,’ he said as he rejoined the Shakers. ‘And the pastures.’ When Daniel looked at him in surprise, he added, ‘She might have started back to Zion and when she saw us coming gone to ground. She might not want to be dragged back to Zion in disgrace.’ Daniel nodded, pleased by the suggestion and quickly asked the other Brothers to spread out across the fields. Rees and Daniel started walking down the lane.

But before they had gone very far, one of the other Shakers called out.

‘Hey, over here.’ A young fellow whose yellow hair stuck out around his straw hat like straw itself, began retching. ‘Oh, dear God.’

Daniel did not pause to remonstrate with the boy for his language but vaulted the fence into the field and ran. Rees struggled to keep up. Was it Leah? Was she hurt? His stomach clenched; he was so afraid the situation was far worse than that.

They arrived at the body lying sprawled in its buckwheat nest at the same time. She lay partly on her right side, partly on her back, her left arm crooked at her waist at an odd angle. Her plain gray skirt was rucked up to her thighs and blood spattered the white flesh. Daniel turned around, his face white, and shouted at the Brothers approaching him, ‘Stay back. Stay back. Don’t come any closer.’

‘Oh no,’ Rees said, dropping to one knee. ‘Oh no.’ Although he’d been told Leah was fourteen, she looked much younger. Under the severe Shaker cap, her skin had the translucent quality of the child. Her eyes were open, the cloudy irises staring at the darkening sky. Rees bent over her. Although it was hard to tell in the fading light he thought he saw marks around her throat. ‘She may have been strangled,’ he said, his eyes rising to the worm fence that separated this field from the road that led into Durham. Leah’s body had been dropped only a few yards from the fence but in the high straw it would have been almost invisible, even in daylight. Rees began walking slowly toward the main road, his eyes fixed upon the ground. There did not seem to be any path from the fence to the body; none of the buckwheat stalks were bent or broken in any way. He did not see any footprints in the soft April soil either. But in the setting sun detail was difficult to see and he made a mental note to examine this section of the field more closely tomorrow.

‘The farmer, did he do this terrible thing?’ Daniel cried, glancing from side to side.

‘Perhaps, but I doubt it,’ Rees said. He touched the girl’s upraised arm to see if he could move it. As he suspected, the body was growing stiff. ‘He would be a fool to leave her in his own field.’

‘It was not Shem,’ Aaron said loudly. Rees glanced up at the man. Why was Aaron so protective of that boy?

‘She’s been dead for about some hours,’ Rees said, returning to his examination. Then he thought about the warmth of the day. Leah would have been lying here, in the sun. ‘Maybe since mid-afternoon.’ And that time would be consistent with the time she’d left town.

‘How do you know?’ Daniel stared at Rees in shock, mixed with dawning suspicion.

‘You told me she was seen at noon dinner,’ Rees replied, ‘so we know she was alive then.’ He rose to his feet and looked at Daniel ‘It must be almost six o’clock now.’

‘Probably after,’ Daniel said, looking around at the fading light.

‘A body begins to stiffen a few hours after death and then, maybe half a day later, the rigidity passes off. I saw this frequently during the War for Independence but any good butcher will tell you the same.’ Rees kept his eyes upon the other man who finally nodded with some reluctance. ‘I would guess that Leah was accosted by someone on her way home.’ He paused. The poor child had probably been lying here when he rode past, thinking of the circus. He closed his eyes as a spasm of shame went through him.

‘She knew she was not to leave Zion,’ Daniel said with a hint of wrath in his voice.

Rees sighed. This was not the first time he had seen the victim blamed. And perhaps, for a celibate such as Daniel, anger was an easier emotion right now than horror and disgust and grief as well. ‘Perhaps she behaved foolishly, but she did not deserve this end to her life.’

‘We will take her home -,’ Daniel began. But Rees interrupted.

‘We must send someone for the constable.’

‘No. No. She is one of ours.’

‘This is murder,’ Rees said, staring fixedly at Daniel. Although shocked and horrified, he had witnessed too many violent deaths to be paralyzed by such evil any longer. His calm voice and stern regard had the desired effect. Daniel sucked in a deep breath. After he had mastered himself, he left Rees’s side and joined the group of Shakers.

‘Run back to the village and get a horse,’ he told one of the youngest Brothers. ‘Ride into Durham and fetch Constable Rouge.’ His voice trembled on the final word. Rees looked at Daniel. He was swaying on his feet, his eyes were glassy and his skin pale and slick with perspiration. He looked as though he might faint. Rees drew him away from Leah’s body and pressed him down into a sitting position. Daniel was little more than a boy himself and had lived in the serene Shaker community most of his life. It was no surprise he was ill-equipped to handle such a terrible occurrence. ‘Put your head between your knees,’ Rees said. ‘I’m going to walk to the farmhouse and talk to the farmer. Maybe he saw something.’

‘I’ll go with you.’ Daniel stood up; so unsteady Rees grabbed him to keep him from falling.

‘No,’ he said with a shake of his head.

‘I need to go with you,’ the Brother said fiercely. ‘I need to do something. That poor child!’ Rees stared at the other man. Although Daniel’s face was still white, and he was trembling he had set his mouth in a determined line. ‘I must do this, Rees.’

‘Very well.’ Rees glanced over his shoulder at the body. From here, it appeared to be a bundle of rags dropped among the stalks. ‘Poor chick won’t be going anywhere.’

Daniel looked at Brother Aaron. ‘You were once a soldier,’ he said. ‘You’ve seen violence and death. Please stay with our Sister.’ Aaron nodded and, withdrawing a few steps, sat down in the row between the stalks. In the encroaching shadows he instantly faded from view. Only his pale straw hat remained, shining in the last of the light like a beacon.

Rees and Daniel set off across the fields for the distant farmhouse.

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Excerpt from A Circle Of Dead Girls by Eleanor Kuhns.
Copyright 2020 by Eleanor Kuhns. Reproduced with
permission from Eleanor Kuhns. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur First Crime novel competition for A Simple Murder. She lives in upstate New York. A Circle of Death Girls is Will Rees Mystery # 8.

Catch Up With Eleanor Kuhns:

www.Eleanor-Kuhns.com
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Book Review: A Shadowed Fate by Marty Ambrose

A Shadowed Fate
A Claire Clairmont Historical Mystery
Marty Ambrose
Severn House, March 2020
ISBN: 978-0-7278-8992-8
Hardcover

For all the accolades presented to this series of books by other reviewers, I’m afraid I got a different impression. Perhaps if I’d started with the first of the series it would be different, but in A Shadowed Fate, instead of connecting with the characters (in this case the real-life mistress and mother of Lord Byron’s child, Claire Clairmont) and what should have been the mystery, the reader is told what has happened with Claire and Lord Byron up until her age of 70+. At that point we learn someone has broken in to her home and robbed Claire of a valuable painting, the sale of which she had been depending on to keep her and a couple of dependents from abject poverty. She managed to save some papers, written by Byron, that indicate their daughter, whom Claire thought died of typhoid at a very young age, might have lived. And so a search is on. Byron is long dead by this time, although he’s still a central character, detailed in a series of flashbacks taking place fifty years in  the past.

Trelawny, a friend of Byron’s who delivered the papers, accompanies Claire, her niece and her niece’s young daughter, on a trip across Italy to Ravenna, in a quest to discover the truth about the missing child.

The journey reads much like a travelogue. There’s not a lot of mystery, never really any tension,  and to me, the dialogue and characters seemed a bit flat, especially as the question of the child’s life or death is not answered. For that, you’ll have to read the next book in the series.

Nicely written, it’s a story I’m quite sure will appeal to fans of Lord Byron’s poetry.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, August 2020.
http://www.ckcrigger.com
Author of The Woman Who Built A Bridge (Spur Award Winner), Yester’s Ride,
Hometown Burning and Five Days, Five Dead: A China Bohannon Novel

Book Review: Puddin’ on the Blitz by Tamar Myers @severnhouse

Puddin’ on the Blitz
A Pennsylvania-Dutch Mystery #21
Tamar Myers
Severn House, December 2019
ISBN 978-0-7278-8915-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Although the culinary fare at Magdalena Yoder’s new restaurant, Asian Sensations – a unique combination of Asian and Amish cuisine – is not to everyone’s taste, the good citizens of Hernia are unanimously agreed that the desserts concocted by the restaurant chef, Barbara Hostetler, are to die for.

Not literally however. When a guest at the PennDutch Inn drops dead shortly after consuming a slice of Barbara’s delicious Blitz torte, Magdalena finds herself arrested for murder. Did someone deliberately set her up? In order to clear her name and protect her nearest and dearest, Magdalena must identify a ruthless killer – before they strike again.

Tamar Myers has been entertaining mystery readers—including me, most decidedly—for many years and this latest Pennsylvania Dutch entry is no exception to the rule. Magdalena Yoder is an enduring protagonist and, after so many adventures, has gotten amateur sleuthing down to a fine science, you might say.

Now, if you’re looking for a dynamic crime thriller with a well-tuned sleuth, you’re in the wrong place. Magdalena isn’t always the nicest person around, a bit too sharp-tongued, and, as cozies often do, a lot of attention is directed towards her personal life and the goings-on in the inn and the village. The mystery to be solved isn’t as strong as in some earlier books but it’s interesting and there are some  unusual aspects to it, not least of which is the true identities of the couple who rented the restaurant for an exclusive meal.

This is the first in the series that I’ve read in several years but I had no trouble catching up, so to speak, and I enjoyed it even though it’s not quite up to snuff with some of the previous books. It’s a nice read for a lazy day and I’ll definitely be back.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2019.

Book Review: Dressed to Kill by Kathleen Delaney @kdkoppang @severnhouse

Dressed to Kill
A Mary McGill Canine Mystery #4
Kathleen Delaney
Severn House, November 2019
ISBN 978-0-7278-8894-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Mary McGill and her cocker spaniel Millie get the fright of their lives on Halloween when they hear gunshots coming from the bank and the robber, dressed in a clown costume, points his gun at them before fleeing the scene. Mary is horrified when she discovers Police Chief Dan Dunham has been shot in the shoulder and a woman has been killed. Why would the clown shoot an ordinary citizen?

Mary soon learns that the victim is Victoria Witherspoon, a local woman who owned a sewing shop and must have recognised the clown costume – because she made it herself. With Dan in hospital and unable to investigate, can Mary and Millie unmask the savage killer clown before he strikes again?

Like a whole lot of other people, I really hate clowns and I felt this way even before Stephen King gave us IT (a great book, BTW, despite my aversion). Still, I know Kathleen Delaney‘s work and had no doubt this particular clown would leave my nerves alone…and I was right 😉

Police Chief Dan Dunham, Mary McGill’s nephew-in-law, is shot by a bank robber dressed as a clown but he’s not the only victim. The local seamstress, Victoria Witherspoon, might have been killed because she could identify the robber, despite the rubber mask. Dan will be recovering from surgery for a while and Mary saw the robber run out of the bank so she decides she’ll need to help Detective Sean Ryan from San Louis Obispo Homicide even though he’s rude and obnoxious. Mary has to oversee the cleanup from the very successful Halloween in the Park event she chaired but, more importantly, she’s pretty sure there’s something familiar about the clown and she needs to figure it out.

With more than a little help from her Cocker Spaniel, Millie, and some human friends, Mary thinks her way through some baffling leads, frequently a half-step ahead of law enforcement officials. That’s at least partly because the locals soon tire of the “imported” detective and his supercilious attitude that actually gets in the way of seeing clues; those same locals have come to believe in Mary’s sleuthing abilities after several earlier crimes. Soon enough, another death increases the pressure and Mary’s common sense and the wisdom that comes with age become invaluable in identifying the killer and the “why” behind the crimes. I thoroughly enjoyed not only this story but also spending time with some old friends and new, not to mention the delightful four-legged variety.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2019.

Note: Goodreads, Amazon and other sites all have this incorrectly listed as Book 19 but it’s really Book 4 in the series. Mary McGill appears in several earlier books but she’s the central character in these four books.

Book Reviews: Proof of Life by Sheila Lowe and Simply Dead by Eleanor Kuhns @sheila_lowe @suspensemag @EleanorKuhns @severnhouse

Proof of Life
A Beyond the Veil Mystery #2
Sheila Lowe
Suspense Publishing, May 2019
ISBN 978-0-578-45315-6
Trade Paperback

After the accident in which her abusive husband and their infant son died, Jessica Mack had amnesia and began to experience strange noises and even voices. This enthralling thriller traces her development from confused and upset to more and deeper understanding of non-corporeal experiences. A practicing artist, Jessica Mack creates art that seems to illustrate crime scenes, but she cannot recall making the art, nor where the detailed information came from.

Gradually over the space of this excellent novel, Jessica begins to understand what may be happening to her. It is unsettling, disrupts her life at times, but instead of resisting or rejecting the forces, she instinctively sets out to learn more.

For many people whose religious or world views reject the idea of other worlds co-existing with that which we inhabit, this may become unsettling. I would urge such people to persist and read this book. Jessica Mack, an identical twin, has already experienced odd experiences with her twin sister. So she is open to learning more about the spirit world. As should we readers.

Unlike many novels that create a spirit world to fit the story, this author has created a character who is not a willing subject, but one who becomes interested in life for those beyond the veil and in a fascinating and consistent way, struggles to learn more and then to use her developing awareness to aid in a race to locate a small child who may have been kidnapped.

The author steadily raises the tension as time inexorably passes. Jessica must deal with her sister, her FBI acquaintance, other skeptics and a burgeoning love interest. The novel is very-well written, extremely carefully plotted, logical and peopled with very interesting, well-drawn characters It will capture the interest of a wide range of crime novel addicts. I strongly recommend this excellent novel.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 2019.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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Simply Dead
A Will Rees Mystery #7
Eleanor Kuhns
Severn House, August 2019
ISBN 978-0-7278-8884-6
Hardcover

Winter in northern climes is difficult in the best of times. In late eighteenth century rural Maine, winter can be deadly. In a small Shaker community located in a snow bound village, a deeply disturbed murderer threatens to tear apart an already uneasy relationship with the World, as it is known among Shakers.

Will Rees is a weaver and hard-scrabble farmer with several children and a bright loving wife in his care. The weaver and farmer is an interesting motivator for the novel, husband and father of a teen girl and some even younger children. His almost insatiable curiosity propels him into conflicts at several levels when a local midwife goes missing in the snowy woods. Naturally he seeks her, exposing himself to storms and cold. He finds the midwife almost dead of exposure in the snow and rescues her while realizing the young woman is distraught and hiding something, something truly horrible.

The novel is a deliberate and accurate portrayal of early life for settlers in Maine during the period and is liberally strewn with a wide range of characters one might expect to find in an isolated settlement like this in early America. His small village has a constable who owns and runs the town bar and restaurant and thus is not reliable to protect locals against the menace of hungry wolves.

Conflicts arise for Rees and his family on all sides, affording the author ample opportunity to make deep dives into a host of personalities and situations and she takes most opportunities to do that, including brief but telling examination of the Shaker community. Consequently, the well-written, finely organized story presents several varied and useful personalities in both ordinary and highly fraught situations in a novel of manners, murder and detection. Readers will finish the novel having a concentrated experience of a particular part of America and its people before there was a United States.

Simply Dead is simply a good story with a lot of excellent characters, very well told.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2019.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Reviews: A Measure of Murder by Leslie Karst and Mile High Murder by Marcia Talley

A Measure of Murder
A Sally Solari Mystery #2
Leslie Karst
Crooked Lane Books, February 2018
ISBN 978-1-68331-493-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Sally Solari is busy juggling work at her family’s Italian restaurant, Solari’s, and helping Javier plan the autumn menu for the restaurant she’s just inherited, Gauguin. Complicating this already hectic schedule, Sally joins her ex-boyfriend Eric’s chorus, which is performing a newly discovered version of her favorite composition: the Mozart Requiem. But then, at the first rehearsal, a tenor falls to his death on the church courtyard–and his soprano girlfriend is sure it wasn’t an accident.

Now Sally’s back on another murder case mixed in with a dash of revenge, a pinch of peril, and a suspicious stack of sheet music. And while tensions in the chorus heat up, so does the kitchen at Gauguin–set aflame right as Sally starts getting too close to the truth. Can Sally catch the killer before she’s burnt to a crisp, or will the case grow as cold as yesterday’s leftovers?

Good food and good music go together beautifully but not so much when death—most likely murder—is in the mix. Sally Solari had looked forward to singing in the chorus performing this special piece but gets drawn into the peculiarities surrounding Kyle’s death. She has very little spare time in her life for this, though, because she’s working at both her family’s restaurant and the one she recently inherited from her aunt but Sally is a Type-A Energizer Bunny who can be downright exhausting. In fact, the one weakness (in my mind) was that, because Sally is often off chasing leads, we don’t get to spend as much time as I would like in the restaurants but then I’m an unofficial foodie 😉

Nobody wishes death on people but Kyle was not a pleasant person and, quite frankly, he won’t be missed by many other than his girlfriend, Jill. It isn’t long before possible motives seem to pile up and Sally becomes suspicious about several possible killers but I have to say it took me a while to settle on one. Before Sally can bring the perpetrator to justice, she becomes a target herself.

As a former attorney, Sally is probably more qualified than most amateurs to investigate a crime and that lends her snooping a certain credibility other amateurs don’t have but her rationale still doesn’t hold much water. That’s okay, however, because (1) this is a cozy and sleuths in cozies don’t need a lot of justification and (2) I enjoyed this mystery as much as the first in the series. Let’s face it, Sally and her family and friends are fun to be around—I especially enjoyed re-connecting with Javier and Eric—and we’re rewarded at the end with a handful of recipes that just might entice you to try them out. I’m feeling the munchies for the grilled cheese sandwich right now 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2018.

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Mile High Murder
A Hannah Ives Mystery #16
Marcia Talley
Severn House, April 2018
ISBN 978-0-7278-8768-9
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Hannah Ives embarks on a trip to the Mile High City on a fact-finding mission. But is she about to get ‘high’ on murder?

It’s a well-known fact that some of the Reach for Recovery cancer support group survivors Hannah Ives works with take marijuana. Recreational use of the drug may be illegal, but a few, like Maryland State Senator Claire Thompson, are prescribed it on medical grounds.

Claire has co-sponsored a Cannabis Legalisation Bill and wants Hannah to be part of a fact-finding task force that testifies before the Maryland State Senate.

Before long, Hannah is in Denver, Colorado – the Mile High City – staying at a B&B with a group of pot pilgrims and medical refugees – some of whom, like her, are on a mission for information. But when one of the group is found dead, and a closer inspection of the body reveals they may not be who they seem, Hannah is plunged into a dangerous cocktail of drugs and death.

Hannah Ives has been a comfortable fictional friend for a long time now and I’m always happy to see a new book come out. This time she gets involved in “research” to bolster State Senator Claire Thompson’s hopes to get a marijuana bill passed in Maryland, one to broaden and organize the specifics of already passed legislation that legalized the drug for medical use. To do this, they have to go to a state where recreational pot use is already lawful so they head out to Colorado, Denver to be specific. As a long-term cancer survivor, Hannah doesn’t need medical marijuana but Claire has a prescription and is inclined to use it even if she’s at risk of being caught breaking the law.

Hannah decides to go, mainly because she’ll have a chance to testify before the senate, a taste of the old days when she dealt with bureaucrats on a regular basis. This seems like a fairly simple task but Hannah did try to tell Claire that Hannah seems to attract dead bodies, a lengthy list of them, in fact. Still, they didn’t expect to find themselves so completely surrounded by hippie types and a million different ways to indulge at their “bud-and-breakfast”, Bell House…nor did they expect a fellow guest to be a victim of foul play.

I think the mystery here is a little less suspenseful than in Hannah’s previous adventures but I still had a good time learning all the ins and outs of legalized marijuana and watching Hannah do what she does so well, identify a murderer. Fans will be happy to see her again (and, Paul, her lovely Navy professor husband) but new readers might want to start with at least the first book to have a better idea of who Hannah is.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2018.

Book Review: Blood Red, White and Blue by Kathleen Delaney

Blood Red, White and Blue
Mary McGill Canine Mystery #3
Kathleen Delaney
Severn House, July 2017
ISBN 978-0-7278-8689-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

It’s the 4th July and the town celebrations have gone off without a hitch. Except for the body in the oak grove, shot in the back. The unfortunate victim was a visitor to the town. Mary McGill and her cocker spaniel Millie had seen him only that morning, staring in the window of Lowell’s Jewellery store, his German Shepherd, Ranger, at his side. Could the diamond and sapphire necklace which caught his attention have some connection with his untimely death? What brought him to Santa Louisa in the first place?

Having agreed to look after Ranger temporarily, Mary is unwillingly drawn into the murder investigation. She never dreamed that her enquiries would lead her into serious danger … and more murder.

Santa Louisa’s 4th of July celebrations are underway when Mary and Millie have a casual meeting with Ian Miller and his German Shepherd, Ranger, in front of the jewelry store. Everything is pleasant among humans and dogs and, certainly, Mary has no inkling that the next time she sees him, Mr. Miller will be dead. The only good thing about it is that the glorious fireworks show went off without a hitch but, of course, it’s probably those very fireworks that covered up the shot.

Mary and her “crew” are soon doing what they do so well, sniffing out clues and even being a fair amount of help to Mary’s nephew-in-law, Police Chief Dan Dunham. Dan is a police chief with sense, recognizing that there are some things civilians can do better than the police can while he’s also cognizant of the dangers inherent in murder investigations. Mary is the one who’s most likely to figure things out with the information that comes her way but she couldn’t do it without the help of her family and close friends.

Mary is such a delight, thoughtful and intelligent without being ridiculously nosy, and she never lets the routines of life get pushed aside by snooping. Instead, she does much of her thinking about a crime while having her morning coffee or taking Millie for a walk. This time, there are repercussions beyond the community because it turns out that Ian was with the California Bureau of Investigations and was in Santa Louisa following up on leads about a series of jewelry store robberies. His death naturally brings state investigators to town, some helpful, some not but, once Mary suddenly sees the truth, it’s Ranger who becomes so very important.

Spending a few hours with Mary McGill and her friends and family is always so nice and I have fun with these people while I appreciate the camaraderie and the feelings they all have for each other, canines as well as humans. Kathleen Delaney‘s series is one of my favorites and I really, really wish that I could have their next adventure right now 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2017.