The Devil's Cold Dish by Eleanor Kuhns

A Devil’s Cold Dish is as much a story about being an outsider as it is about malice and revenge.  I am always fascinated by the consequences of being different – or at least being perceived as different. And there are so many ways to be different: mental and physical defects, sexual orientation, even living outside the sexual mores of the local village (I explored this in Cradle to Grave ) to mention a few.  Even now, in this modern age when we encourage tolerance and speak of inclusiveness,  being perceived as Other can cause suffering. How much worse must it have been two hundred years ago?

In A Simple Murder, my first book, Mouse (Hannah Moore) was born with cleft palate. The superstition of the times claimed that if a pregnant woman saw a hare, her child would be born with this deformity. Now the defect is easily correctible with surgery. But then, in the late 1700s?

What would happen to a girl with this defect when marriage was almost the only path open to a woman? Especially a girl like Mouse without wealth or position so even the option of using a good dowry to attract a mate would be closed to her. I gave Mouse a future by putting her into the Shakers. In that celibate community, she would have had a job, a family, and a purpose.

In A Devil’s Cold Dish I explore the consequences of being the ‘Other” on my two main characters. Will Rees grew up in a small Maine town as an angry little boy, a fighter. No one will let him forget his past either, even though Rees has grown up and become a different person. Besides that, as a former soldier in the Continental Army and now a traveling weaver, he has seen a lot more of the world than this little town. He has become more cosmopolitan and the hidebound opinions of Dugard, Maine are no longer his. He has gained a certain perspective. Resentment of Rees’s ‘town bronze’ in his home town means that the allegation he committed a murder is believed.

His wife Lydia is even more at risk,  An outspoken woman and a Shaker besides she is viewed with suspicion. The Shakers were suspect because of their religious beliefs.  They were celibate and pacifists – a fact that meant both British and Americans persecuted them during the War for Independence. In a time when a woman could not inherit her husband’s estate unless he specifically named her in his will, the Sisters enjoyed equal status with the Brothers.  They welcomed black people, including escaped slaves, since they believed everyone was a child of God. It is surely no surprise to learn the Shakers were abolitionists. 

Being different could get you killed. Women especially were at risk.  Even though the Salem witch trials were one hundred years in the past, the belief in witches was still current and widely accepted.  (The last witchcraft trial in New York took place in 1816.) An accusation of witchcraft was usually a death sentence.

A malicious accusation directed at Lydia would be believed. All of the family would be in danger.  With powerful enemies ranged against them, Rees protects his family by sending them away. And he investigates the murders while a fugitive, running for his own life.

Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel. A lifelong librarian, she received her Masters from Columbia University and is currently the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in Orange County New York.

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