Revolutionary War veteran Will Rees’ third case takes him from his home in Maine to the Shaker community of Mount Unity, New York, where accusations of child neglect blossom into murder.
Hannah “Mouse” Moore, an old friend of Rees and his bride, Lydia, is in unexpected trouble in Mount Unity, whose elders have accused her of kidnapping. And with good reason, for when Rees and Lydia (Death of a Dyer, 2013, etc.) make the journey to Dover Springs, the little town near Albany where the community has put down roots, they find that Mouse freely admits carrying off Maggie Whitney’s four children and a foundling she’d taken in as well. It was for the children’s own good, she insists; Maggie was criminally neglecting Jerusha, 8; Simon, 7; Nancy, 5; Judah, 2; and tiny Joseph, the foundling. When Rees and Lydia visit Maggie, she’s obviously drunk; there’s nothing in the house to eat; and she’s apprenticed the precociously well-spoken Simon to neighboring farmer Tom Baker. In a community that’s a law unto itself, however, Mouse doesn't have a leg to stand on legally, and the best Rees can do is to smooth the waters and ingratiate himself with the locals and selectmen before he and Lydia head back home. No sooner have they set forth on their return, however, than they’re recalled to Mount Unity by the news that Maggie has been found dead in an open grave, with Mouse the obvious suspect. It falls to Rees to pester her friends and neighbors with endless questions—one of them aptly compares him to “a biting flea”—until the truth about Maggie’s tangled history finally emerges.
An improbable opening gambit and the gathering revelations of even more improbable extramarital relations that abundantly justify Rees’ verdict—“These incestuous small towns!”—make this the weakest of his three period adventures to date.