An unsettling literary mystery spun around the first murder in Exeter, New Hampshire, a true-life unsolved crime, The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin wastes no time settling into its historical milieu. The language is formal yet accessible, while the tale is darkly compelling.
In 1648, a magistrate of the Pascataqua plantation writes to Englishman Richard Browne with an invitation and request. Browne seeks entry into the forest trade to recoup his family's financial losses; his would-be benefactor, Jonathan Cole, has been unable to resolve a months-old case and asks for his help.
That past spring, a young woman’s nude, strangled, “much abused” body was found in the bay. Her husband has withdrawn charges against the principal suspect, who has since disappeared – whether out of guilt or for his own reasons, nobody can guess.
Begiebing introduces the late Mistress Coffin in slow, deliberate fashion: we learn others’ reports of her, then her first name, and only later, perhaps, her own thoughts. “She left herself too undone,” testified the suspect, Jared Higgins, a man hired to row her to market on the day she died. “There was some enchantment over her ripe and plucky beauty... something in her ways to disturb Christian men and women.”
Such un-Puritan-like behavior is just one way this novel diverges from the expected. Godly devotion and superstitious beliefs exist alongside worldly acquisitiveness of a sort that today’s business moguls would recognize. Hallmarks of refined civilization can be found even in the pristine wilderness: wealthy men keep large libraries, quality board-cloths are laid upon tables, and pewter servingware is used at meals. The people maintain strong ties with England and closely follow its troubled politics. Finally, as Browne learns firsthand, sometimes earthly desires trump any outside rules.
The mysteries twist and deepen the longer Browne searches for answers, and with his unspoken attraction toward Higgins’ abandoned wife, he develops his own reasons for directing the investigation as he does. Times and customs may change, but human nature remains constant. As much a revelatory character study as an absorbing crime novel, The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin offers sharp depictions of colonial life and a startling bridge between that long-ago world and now.
This classic backlist title was recently reprinted by Hardscrabble Books/Univ. Press of New England (Aug. 2012, $16.95, trade pb, 236pp), with a striking new cover, in honor of the 20th anniversary of its initial release. It forms a loose trilogy with Begiebing's two other novels of historic New England, The Adventures of Allegra Fullerton and Rebecca Wentworth's Distraction.