Sunday, September 15, 2013

Book Review - A Simple Murder - By Phil Baker

Parting with likeable characters at the end of a well-crafted plot can be bittersweet, but rewarding. On the contrary, the end of A Simple Murder, a Mystery, by Eleanor Kuhns (322 pages, published in 2012 by Minotaur Books) is simply a relief. 

Kuhns is an author in search of a voice. Her writing doesn’t flow, never achieves a lyrical sense or finds a satisfying beat. Word selections that smell of a thesaurus, pepper her prose like eggshells in an omelet. The characters’ vocabulary is anachronistic and their actions out of sync with their world and setting.

A murder mystery in a Shaker enclave in Maine; the plot-line falls flat from the start and leaves much unexplained. For example: an overarching foreboding is created when it’s learned the community is governed by a single elder and one eldress, an extreme oddity. The reader is transparently encouraged to suspect the two administrators, but this oddity is never explained. Other suspects pop up and are dispatched within the end like a game of whack-a-mole. 

The setting is poorly delivered. Zion, Maine seems rich with potential, but remains a caricature of a religious community. The author’s descriptions of environment consist of cursory mentions of stonewalls and rocky soil; and Maine’s famous coastline remains just a theory.

Kuhns’s characters seem purpose-built; entering stage-right just when needed, vested genetically it seems with the skills for the job at hand. 

William Rees has an inexplicable preternatural ability to solve murder mysteries (apparently more common in 1792 rural Maine than I’d have guessed.) He travels to the village in Zion and is invited to stay. That very evening a pretty Shaker sister named Chastity is found face-down on a walkway assuming the temperature of a recently pickled cucumber, deader than a Shaker chair peg. Rees, an eighteenth century Columbo, goes to work.

The heroine, Lydia Jane Farrell has had a baby out of wed-lock. I’d expect her to be dragged from pillory to post given the community and the year but she isn’t, she’s even idolized by another Shaker sister. Lydia and Rees get together and solve the mystery rather too conveniently while traipsing about an unpainted paint-by-numbers landscape. 

I didn’t buy the resolution of the murder nor the characters or setting. The author received the “First Crime Novel Award” of 2012. If you are an avid crime novel reader and choose this title, prepare for a rocky go of it.

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