Thoreau at Devil’s Perch
First in a new series, this is a well-constructed murder mystery set in 1840s New England. Thoreau is residing at Walden Pond, and his character is nicely presented: dignified, thoughtful, humorous, and indeed, ever as observant and deductive as Sherlock Holmes himself. The death of a young, unknown Negro man is quickly dismissed as an accident by the town’s nervous selectmen, but both Thoreau and the main protagonist of the story, Dr. Adam Walker, observe enough to know it was murder. There is an engaging love story between the doctor and his cousin, Julia, who is an artist and rather more independent-minded than most of the women in the small town of Plumford, Mass. Between these two and Henry, this murder (and more) is solved to everyone’s satisfaction, and with some great peril to both hero and heroine.
Oak writes very well, the characters are solid and interesting, and the victims and suspects are well-matched and not easy to determine. The only quibble I had was that the story is told as if from journal entries of Adam and Julia, taking chapters by turn; once you accept that construction, though, their “journal entries” have plenty of dialogue and action so it’s easy to forget that’s what they are, until the beginning of the next chapter. There is a good sense of the times and the life of simple but smart people living in rural Massachusetts – though not so far from Concord and Boston that they don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world. Thoreau seems as real as any other character, and I was happy to see that the author avoided the ploy of putting famous “quotes” in his mouth to show he is indeed the Thoreau we’ve all read. It was really quite a page-turner, and I stayed up pretty late one night to finish it off!