Sunday, November 21, 2021

Eleanor Kuhns' Murder on Principle unravels a mystery in early 19th-century Maine

A man garbed in a bright yellow waistcoat, fawn-colored pantaloons, and red-trimmed Hessian boots is an unusual sight in the Maine woods, and the state of his body is even more so. The fashionable Mr. Randolph Gilbert lies dead, both strangled and stabbed.

In November 1800, Will Rees, weaver and amateur detective, is asked by Constable Rouge, his sometime rival, to help solve the murder, which was discovered by an elder from the nearby Shaker community. After Rees learns Mr. Gilbert’s purpose in town, he grows nervous. The man was seeking to recapture a light-skinned young woman and her baby who fled enslavement in Virginia, and Rees and his wife, Lydia, have just returned from that state on an abolitionist mission (as recounted in Death in the Great Dismal, the previous book).

The theme explored in this sharply rendered historical mystery, tenth in series, is a powerful moral question. “If the victim is a slave catcher, well then, I say thank you to his murderer,” Rees’s friend Tobias, a free man of color, tells him, requesting that he drop the investigation. Rees’s natural inclination to pursue justice causes him internal conflict, and his Black friends may not forgive him if he succeeds. Plus, he can’t help but wonder if they themselves are guilty. 

Kuhns devotes close attention to fine period details, from cooking implements to rural Shaker lifeways, while the contemporary relevance of some plot aspects is unmistakable. The late Mr. Gilbert was ill with smallpox, the pestilence is quickly spreading, and Rees moves to quickly inoculate his children using a doctor’s suggested methodology. Not everyone puts their trust in science, though.

The novel stands alone, though some characters’ backstories (the origin of Rees’s large, blended family, for instance) aren’t immediately obvious to newcomers. Recommended for readers enamored of early American settings.

Murder on Principle was published in 2021 by Severn House, and I'd reviewed it from NetGalley for November's Historical Novels Review.  The first book in the series is A Simple Murder, which won the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel competition in 2011. This latest book is the 10th in the series. The author, a fellow librarian, is the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in upstate New York.


  1. This sounds really good, lots going on historically. I took a look at the first book on Goodreads and it sounds like the series is a nice mixture of history and solid mystery. Thanks for the review!

  2. The story nicely brought together many social issues of the time. I haven't read others in the series, though intend to!

  3. I’ve read some in that series but am not current.

  4. Glad you're familiar with the series. I need to get caught up with the earlier ones.