Eleanor Kuhns, assistant director at the Goshen Public Library, NY, makes her debut as an author this month with the publication of A Simple Murder (see the starred review, p. 56). The mesmerizing mystery set in a Maine Shaker community at the tail end of the 18th century is not to be missed. Kuhns took some time to talk with us via email about her novel’s inception and what she has learned along the way about American history‚ and getting published.
How you did you decide to set your story within a Shaker community? And why did you choose to make it a mystery?
I love mysteries. Besides the puzzle aspect, I think mysteries cut right to some of our most human qualities: the best and the worst. The Shakers, in my opinion, embody some of the best. They really lived their altruism, providing a safety net for orphans and a [refuge] for the poor. They never turned away anyone in need, even though they knew some of their new converts were winter Shakers and there only for the hot meals.
The Shakers are also uniquely American. Although Mother Lee was an English Quaker, she and her followers broke with the Quakers. She brought her new faith to New York in the mid-1700s, and by the 1790s there were a number of Shaker communities. Before the Civil War, they had grown to about 20,000‚ this with celibacy! And at a time when fewer than half the boys were taught to read and only a small fraction of the girls, the Shakers taught all the children: girls in summer, boys in winter.
Your setting is unique, but so is the time period (1790s) for American-based mysteries. In your research, did you find law enforcement to be somewhat harsh in this new nation?
Law enforcement was harsh, what there was of it. In this period, the policing was set up as it was in England: sheriffs and constables. Almost all property crimes were punishable by death. Law enforcement was not a prestigious or well-paid career either; [officers] usually had to have another job or form of income.
How did being a librarian help in your research?
The library I work in now has an active local history room that I’ve used many times. I also used [interlibrary loan] throughout our area to pull in everything I could find on the topics. But I also visited several Shaker villages/museums. It is so helpful to see the layout of the communities, and most have a shop that sells books and other materials on topics unavailable in any other way. I confess I prefer owning the books since I refer to them again and again.
Congratulations on winning the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel competition! When did you realize that you had a book you wanted to submit?
I wrote my first story when I was ten, and I’ve written every day from then on but with very little success. I wanted to write about the early United States since I feel that we have a rich history of our own that is not very well known. I already had two finished novels, one a prequel to A Simple Murder, before Rees meets Lydia, but I wasn’t happy with the ending. And I was looking for places to send them when I came upon the announcement for the contest. The readers there were the very first to read my manuscript. (So, to all budding authors, I say, don’t give up.)
Your protagonist, Will Rees, is a weaver by trade. Since his profession enables him to be on the road, does this mean we might see him (and Lydia, of course) in forthcoming books?
Indeed, it does. I hope to publish my prequel, tentatively titled Rye Whiskey I Die, set against the Whiskey Rebellion, and the sequel to A Simple Murder (Death of a Dyer) is currently at Minotaur. This time period in American history is fascinating, full of ferment and with so many of the same issues facing the country today.
Do you have some must-read mystery authors who have inspired you?
I read just about every kind of mystery there is, and I especially enjoy historical mysteries. I’ve learned more history from them than in any class. I love both Barbara Hambly and Anne Perry and own complete collections of their works. I regularly try the recipes from Diane Mott Davidson and Joanna Fluke. But I also read C.J. Box, Michael Connolly, and James Lee Burke. All have such memorable characters.‚ Terry Jacobsen, retired librarian, LJ mystery columnist