A Stranger’s Death

By Strangers Mourned by John Lindermuth

“By Strangers Mourn’d” is a line from a poem by Alexander Pope. Not only is it a beautiful poem, but the line is an apt title for this book, which starts off with the death of a young woman who is unknown to everyone in the town of Arahpot, Pennsylvania, in 1899. Her remains have been found in a creek outside town and it is obvious she was murdered. It is Sheriff Sylvester Tilghman’s job to find the killer.

But other crime doesn’t stop because the sheriff is busy solving a murder, and Tilghman has his hands full with problems in Arahpot that have nothing to do with the woman’s murder—or do they? With the help of his deputy, Cyrus, Tilghman works tirelessly to deal with the problems that crop up in his small jurisdiction, from a young boy who’s been shot to a constituent who’s constantly carping that the sheriff is spending too much time looking for the murderer of a woman who was just passing through town—and an immigrant woman at that.

Readers of my blog may recall that I’ve reviewed books by John Lindermuth in the past and enjoyed them, which is part of the reason I had a feeling I would like this one. When John asked me to read the book and write a review, it was a no-brainer for me.

The characters in this book are multi-faceted and likable (well, at least the good guys are likable, and even a couple of the bad guys are, too) and the story moves at a nice clip. Not too fast, not too slow. The reader gets an opportunity to get to know the town of Arahpot and its inhabitants, and there’s even some insight into how people around the turn of the twentieth century felt about some of the innovations of the day, such as the telephone and ragtime music.

Historical fiction from this time period requires good old-fashioned police work to bring the killer to justice. There can be no dependence on DNA or fingerprints or technical crime scene investigation to help law enforcement draw a net around the killer, and Lindermuth relies handily on Tilghman’s intuition, experience, and practical know-how to catch the killer. But it’s not an easy job, and there’s plenty of danger lurking in the story, waiting to ensnare lawmen who let their guards down.

The story is well-plotted and has a subtle complexity that hints at undercurrents of class and ethnic differences. I would recommend By Strangers Mourned to anyone who loves a good historical mystery with plenty of peril and great dialogue.

When John Lindermuth asked me to review the book, he also offered to provide a guest post to accompany the review. What follows is his brief post, which is a perfect complement to the thoughts I’ve shared about the book.

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Early mining operations in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region were the work of amateurs. Those who owned the mines and hoped to profit from them soon realized the need for experienced miners.

Competition began for the available supply of English, Welsh, and Scots-Irish miners who had learned their skills in the old country. Irish immigrants who fled the Potato Famine of the 1840s filled a variety of unskilled jobs above and below ground. They sent word home about opportunities and their number greatly increased. Many Germans also worked in the mines, though more were employed at carpentry, as blacksmiths, and in other related fields supplemental to mining. By the second generation, many of the Irish had learned the mining trade and the English and Welsh moved into supervisory positions.

In the decades that followed as miners began agitating for unions to improve their working conditions and lives, mine owners began seeking cheaper and more manageable labor. This led them abroad where their agents began recruiting Eastern Europeans, many of whom did not speak English and were eager to accept work at rates lower than those demanded by domestic laborers.

In doing my research I discovered these European agencies also recruited young women to work in silk mills, other factories, and as domestics in homes. As is the case now, there were those unscrupulous predators who took advantage of the unwary. This provided the impetus for By Strangers Mourned.

A primary goal in writing historical and other fiction is to entertain the reader. But, if I can offer some insight into what life was like for our ancestors I hope it will be a bonus the reader will appreciate.