Thoreau at Devil's Perch

Thoreau at Devil's Perch

by B. B. Oak

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Henry David Thoreau leaves the seclusion of Walden Pond to help investigate a series of murders in the first in B. B. Oak's fascinating new historical mystery series, set against the bucolic backdrop of 19th century New England.

The lush, overgrown banks of Massachusetts's Assabet river are the ideal place for Dr. Adam Walker to find coveted medicinal plants for his remedies. But on one balmy August morning he finds something very different. A stranger, identifying himself as Henry David Thoreau of nearby Walden Pond, approaches and entreats Adam to accompany him upriver. He has discovered the body of a young black man at the base of the cliff known as Devil's Perch. As they examine the broken corpse and the surrounding scene, both men become convinced that the unfortunate victim was dead long before he fell. Yet the coroner's jury insists otherwise, dismissing the matter as an accident.

Angered by the injustice, Adam and his lovely cousin Julia Bell agree to assist Thoreau in investigating. Adam notes in his new friend all the makings of a great detective—an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, uncanny observational skills, a sharp instinct for detecting human foibles. As the case progresses, the mysteries only deepen and there is no mistaking the brutal slaying of a womanizing army captain as anything other than the coldest murder. Journeying from their tranquil village to Boston's most disreputable district, they gradually uncover the monstrous truth—even while a vicious killer prepares to end their inquiry for good. . .

Advance Praise For Thoreau At Devil's Perch!

"A favorite literary figure shows an unexpected flair for detection in this historical mystery.  Original and charming." —Laura Joh Rowland, author of The Incense Game

"Well researched, captivating and compelling until the very end, Thoreau at Devil's Perch is both mystery and love story during a time that appeared deceptively simple. Through their diaries, the main characters, Adam and Julia become to feel like old friends you want to revisit again and again. I've never been a fan of using historical figures in fiction—B.B. Oak has changed my mind. Well done!" —Anna Loan-Wilsey, author of Anything But Civil

"B. B. Oak brings Thoreau's nineteenth-century world to vivid life in this intriguing puzzler that will keep you guessing to the terrifying end." —Victoria Thompson, author of Murder in Chelsea

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780758290243
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 10/29/2013
Series: Thoreau Mystery Series , #1
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 498,376
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

B. B. Oak is the pen name of Beth and Ben Oak, who met in a literature course at Boston University and have been enthralled with Henry David Thoreau (and each other) ever since. They are members of The Thoreau Society and Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum which recreates life in rural New England and served as the model for the book’s fictional town of Plumford.

Read an Excerpt

Thoreau at Devil's Perch

By B. B. Oak


Copyright © 2013 B. B. Oak
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7582-9023-6



Monday, August 3rd, 1846

This morning I glanced up from my search for medicinal plants along the Assabet River and was startled to see the sun-browned face of a stranger appear through a screen of beech leaves. He quickly but calmly communicated that he had found the broken body of a man on the rocks just upriver and sought to alert the local constable.

"Are you certain he is dead?" I said.

"He appeared quite dead to me," the stranger said. "His head had a severe wound, and when I laid my hand upon his shoulder he did not move."

I identified myself as a doctor and urged we get to the man immediately, explaining that I have known cases where all visible signs of life had ceased and the patient was yet revived.

Without further ado we started upriver Indian file, the stranger leading the way. His homespun suit of greenish-brown blended well with the foliage, and it was no wonder he had come upon me unawares. We exchanged few words as we marched, only stating our names and where we resided. Mr. Thoreau's stride was long for his short stature, and within scarce minutes we came to an area beneath the precipitous face of a cliff overlooking the river. We hastened to the body of a man sprawled on the rocks at water's edge, scattering a murder of crows pecking at the back of his head.

The man lay on his stomach, one arm beneath him and the other spread wide and at an angle that led me to conclude it had been dislocated from the shoulder. Both the tibia and fibula of the right leg had thrust clear through muscle and flesh, and the shattered ends showed white where they had pierced the trouser leg. A two-inch-round section of his skull was stove in, and blood had amassed and dried around the wound, with heavy clots clinging to his dark hair. Placed my hand on his carotid artery to check for a pulse. Found none. His skin was faintly warm to the touch, but skin temperature could not help me determine time of death, as he was lying in the hot morning sun. Mr. Thoreau and I turned him over and saw that he was a young Negro.

I bent over the corpse, lifted the arm that had not been dislocated and rotated it. "The body is stiff, but the rigor mortis is fading. This indicates he died sometime yesterday," I told Thoreau.

He glanced up at the high cliff face. "The obvious conclusion is that his death was caused by a fall from up there."

"Obvious but possibly erroneous," said I. "Although a fall from such a height would certainly result in death, I doubt it caused this man's."

Thoreau's deep-set eyes widened. "Do you? Why?"

"There is no blood around the leg wound, for one thing. If such a severe break had occurred when the man was still alive, the severed arteries would have pumped out a profuse quantity of blood."

"Are you proposing, Dr. Walker, that he was already dead when he went over the cliff?"

"I am almost sure of it," I said. "There is clotted blood in his hair from the head injury he received, yet none on the rocks beneath his head, leading me to conclude he was struck a mortal blow elsewhere. The instrument used was round and blunt."

Thoreau nodded and studied the dead man, his gaze compassionate yet probing. "Note how the backs of his fine boots are caked with dirt, doctor. That indicates to me he was dragged with his heels digging into the ground. We will likely see evidence of this atop the cliff. Let us go investigate posthaste."

We made our way up and to the side of the sheer cliff face by way of a steep and narrow path through the woods. When we reached the clearing on top, Thoreau cautioned me to walk no farther.

"Allow me to inspect the ground," he said, "before we tread upon it." He pulled a magnifying glass from the deep pocket of his jacket. "I use it to examine plant specimens," he explained. He then proceeded to hold it over the marks in the damp, bare soil.

After a few minutes had passed I admittedly lost patience. "Well? Did you find any clews?"

He stood back and pointed. "Wagon tracks," he said.

He had stated the obvious, and I was not impressed. But as he elucidated, I grew more so.

"Here the wagon tracks stop," he said, "and two parallel grooves begin. They lead to the near edge of the cliff, and I surmise they were made by the dead man's boot heels gouging the earth as his body was dragged. Between the two grooves are several very distinct footprints, more deeply depressed in the hind than the forepart. These impressions must have been made by the man who was hauling the body. He would have been walking backwards, with his hands gripping the victim under the arms as he pulled him along."

"I can well imagine the perpetrator's actions as you describe them," I said. "Unfortunately, shoe prints such as those could be made by any man."

"Look more closely, Dr. Walker. The soles of the footwear have the thickness of boots rather than shoes, and there are two deep indentations in the right sole. Should we find the owner of a boot that bears matching marks, we will have found the murderer, or at least the man who threw the Negro's body over the cliff. But how can we preserve such telling evidence?"

"Might not casts of the prints be made with plaster of Paris?"

"An excellent suggestion, if only we had some."

"My cousin Julia Bell does. She had a bag of plaster delivered to her in Plumford just yesterday," I said. "She is an artist and uses it to make face masks."

It was decided that Thoreau would go to Plumford, alert the constable, and obtain the plaster from Julia whilst I further examined the body. I told him where I had left my gig and how to most quickly get to town.

"Look for a big white house with a picket fence overlooking the Green," I further informed him. "It is the residence of Dr. Silas Walker, our grandfather. Both Julia and I are staying with him at present. Pray tell my cousin as little as possible, for I do not want her involved in this foul crime."

"I will be as discreet as I can honestly be," Thoreau said and hurried off.

I descended the cliff path and went back to the dead man to inspect him more closely. His clothing was of cheap quality but of the latest style, more suitable for city than country wear. It was not the sort of apparel I would expect a runaway slave to be wearing. He might have been a freeman from Boston. The pockets of his yellow frock coat, scarlet vest, and boldly checkered trousers were empty of coin, banknotes, or papers of any kind, which suggested to me that his possessions had been taken along with his life. But how had this black stranger ended up at the bottom of a cliff deep in the woods of our township?

Used my pocketknife to slit open his clothes to better examine him for further injuries. He was in the prime of his youth with clean trunk and limbs and no sign of disease or debility. In addition to the broken leg, dislocated shoulder, and head wound I had first seen, one ankle was shattered and three ribs on his right side fractured. As I worked I could not help but be aware of the warm sun on my shoulders, the cliff swallows swooping over my bent head, and the soothing sound of the river flowing beside me. It was altogether too lovely a summer day to be lying broken and dead on the rocks, and I felt deep regret that such a healthy young man had come to such a brutal end in the summer of his own life.

Finding no further injuries or signs of a struggle on his body, I gathered an armful of fresh ferns from the woods and covered his face to keep off the bluebottle flies. I heard a gun go off in the near distance but paid it little mind, for hunters frequent the area. Eventually the town constable found me. Mr. Beers's trudge along the river had caused him to sweat profusely, and his face was so flushed that I sat him down in the shade, soaked my handkerchief in the river, and applied it to the back of his neck.

"I am getting too fat for this post," he panted.

Could not refute him. Eating too much and sitting on a cobbler's bench all day have not made Beers very fit for constable duties. Yet the townsmen reelect him to the office year after year for he is well liked, and his duties are not all that taxing most of the time. Mischief-making boys or an occasional rowdy drunk cause him the most trouble.

He would not go near the corpse nor even look at it. "I'll just set here till the inquest commences," he said. He informed me that the Town Coroner, Fred Daggett, would be along as soon as he found someone to mind his store and he could go round up a jury.

As we waited I asked Beers if he recalled mending a boot with deep cuts on the sole. He did not. I told him about the imprints Mr. Thoreau and I had discovered upon Devil's Perch. He expressed only the mildest interest. I suggested to him that he should go take a look at the prints for himself. Apparently he did not want to hoist his bulk up the side of the cliff, for he suggested to me in return that I should desist from telling him how to perform his constableship duties.

Before our conversation became more heated, Mr. Daggett arrived with his jury of six Plumford citizens, one of them being the town undertaker. Elijah Phyfe also came. Although he had no legal role to play in this particular proceeding, I suppose he had the right to be present as he is the town's Justice of the Peace and chief magistrate. Coroner Daggett swore in his jury, and they convened around the body.

Mr. Thoreau returned by way of the footpath, and he and I testified. The jury listened to us most patiently and attentively as we presented our evidence. After hearing us conclude that we believed this was a case of murder, they all walked downriver, out of earshot, and conferred with Justice Phyfe. In less than a quarter-hour, they came back, and Coroner Daggett informed us the decision they had reached was Death by Accident. When I voiced my objection, Justice Phyfe raised his hand like a Roman senator.

"Now, Adam, do not be pigheaded about this," he said. "This unfortunate buck, unfamiliar with these parts, couldn't see where he was going in the dark and walked off the cliff. Simple as that."

"But the moon was near full last night!" Henry said. No one paid him any mind.

"A runaway slave in stolen clothes, no doubt," Coroner Daggett said. "No need to make this more complicated than it ought to be. The inquest is closed."

"It is your minds that are closed," Mr. Thoreau declared and without another word marched off.

Justice Phyfe, watching him disappear into the woods with narrowed eyes, asked me who he was. I told him all I knew about Henry David Thoreau was that he came from the neighboring town of Concord. One of the jury members, originally from Concord, commented that the Thoreau family, though respectable enough, was of no major consequence there. Justice Phyfe lost interest.

A moment later the Rev. Mr. Upson came down the cliff path. The fowling piece over his arm, I surmised, was the gun I had heard go off earlier. His satchel looked heavy with game, and I have seen him hunting in the area before. Reckon the poor man has little better to do with his time since losing both his wife and his pulpit.

"Best you move on, Mr. Upson," Phyfe said. "There has been an unfortunate accident here."

Upson gave the corpse a cursory glance. "So I just heard."

"Where did you hear this?" Phyfe demanded.


Phyfe raised his eyebrows. "You mean to say God informed you?"

"If I had meant to say that, I would have." Upson pointed to the top of the cliff. "I came across Miss Bell and a man called Thoreau up there, and they informed me that a dead man lay below."

Upon learning that Julia had accompanied Thoreau to Devil's Perch, I drew in my breath but said nothing.

The reverend offered to lead us in prayer, but Justice Phyfe said there was no time for that and turned to the undertaker. "Make arrangements to remove the body as soon as possible, Mr. Jackson, before anyone else from town comes upon it."

"And who will pay for my services?" Jackson wanted to know.

"Oh, what the hell, I will," Phyfe said. "But I'll be damned if I am going to pay for a funeral service as well."

"You are already damned, sir," the Rev. Mr. Upson said, "if you can speak so profanely in the company of a clergyman."

Shrugging, Justice Phyfe looked away without begging his pardon, and Mr. Upson stalked off. It occurred to me that Phyfe would not have risked being so dismissive toward the reverend were he still minister of the Congregational Church. Upson used to hold great sway in town, but times change, even in Plumford. After ten years of hearing Upson preach sin and damnation, his parishioners grew weary of his rigid Calvinist doctrine, and he was voted out of the pulpit, replaced by a Unitarian minister with a more tolerant view of humanity.

The Coroner's Jury having no further use for me, I hurried back up the cliff to find Julia. She was waiting by the gig, eager to hear about the inquest. I told her as little as I could and made it clear that such sordid business was no business of hers. We talked but little on the drive home.

I wonder if I spoke to her too harshly. In truth, I do not know how to communicate with Julia anymore. We have done so little of it over the years. After her father hauled her off to Europe we were forbidden to write to each other, and when we were old enough to post letters on our own, we both wrote in such a stilted, formal style that we left off our endeavor to recapture our childhood intimacy entirely. It appeared that we had simply outgrown each other.

Even so, when I saw Julia alight from the train at the Concord station ten days ago, I was drawn to her as though she were a lodestone. And she seemed just as drawn to me. She had not seen me since I was a boy, yet she headed straight to me without the slightest hesitation and took hold of both my hands. We would have known each other anywhere, no matter how long apart.

"Hello, Lewis," she said.

"Hello, Clark," I replied with a laugh. It delighted me that we had just used the secret names we'd called each other as children.

Julia remained as grave as she'd been as a girl whenever we'd made plans to follow in the footsteps of our heroes Lewis and Clark. "I have often recalled our grand adventure over the years," she said. "Sometimes I think it was but a dream."

"Oh, it was real enough," I said. "And to think we almost made it to California."

Now she laughed too. "Give or take several thousand miles. I see you have grown up very tall, cousin."

"And you have grown up very beautiful," I told her, for it was nothing but the truth. We stood there and took each other in until the stage driver hollered over to us to get aboard or get left behind.

And now Molly has just hollered up the stairs that dinner is ready. Hope she has prepared a dish more palatable than yesterday's mutton hash. Such hope has no basis, of course. Molly is a most inept cook. No matter. She has a kind heart, and that is the best trait a hired girl—or anyone—can have. Besides, should I crave a good meal I need only ride over to Tuttle Farm and have Gran serve me up a heaping plate of her tasty victuals. But then I would not have the pleasure of Julia's company at table. Thus I shall dine on mutton hash or worse without complaint this noon.



Monday, 3 August

What a remarkable morning I have had. It commenced in quite an ordinary manner, however, with a visit to Grandfather's chamber. Finding him awake, I changed the dressing on his leg. His wound is healing well. Brought him up breakfast on a tray, and he consumed the yolk of a coddled egg and two pieces of milk toast. His appetite is also improving. Offered to read some Poe to him, but he ordered me to take the morning air instead. After asking Molly to keep an eye on our dear invalid, I went across the road to the Green, where I settled myself upon a bench and opened my sketchbook.

Then lo! Grandfather's old gig came to a stop in front of the house, but Adam was not driving it. A man I had never seen before was holding Napoleon's reins. Fearing Adam had met with an accident, I sprang up from the bench and ran to the carriage.

"Calm yourself, Miss Bell. Your cousin has come to no harm," the stranger told me. He jumped off the gig with the sprightliness of a grasshopper and landed directly before me. Our eyes easily met, for he was close to my own height, and his steady gaze calmed me more than his words. "Dr. Walker has sent me to Plumford to fetch the constable. Might you direct me to him?"

I automatically pointed down the road toward Mr. Beers's shoe shop. "Pray why is my cousin in need of a constable?" I demanded. "And how do you know who I am? I am sure I have never met you before." I would not have forgotten such striking features, especially his inordinately large eyes and nose.

Excerpted from Thoreau at Devil's Perch by B. B. Oak. Copyright © 2013 B. B. Oak. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Thoreau at Devil's Perch 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unique and fascinating historical mystery. Intriguing 19th century characters speak, think and act in keeping with the era, which I really appreciate in a historical. Henry David Thoreau really comes alive. Kept me guessing to the end!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was very excited by the idea of this book but utterly disappointed when I read it. Poorly written, no character development, stilted contrived "dialogue" among characters. I did not bother to finish it to find out who committed murder and am very sorry to have wasted the time I did trying to read it.
goode2shews_74 More than 1 year ago
Very unique and endearing, this is a crime mystery novel set in the 1850s starring Henry David Thoreau, American essayist, poet and practical philosopher. The main characters are a pair of cousins, Julia and Adam, who are in love with each other but are deathly afraid of the consequences a match such as theirs might have on possible offspring. Chapters are written from both Julia's and Adam's perspectives, alternating throughout, as their personal journal entries. The setting is a sleepy New England town called Plumford, not far from Boston. Adam happens upon the body of a mysterious young black man, who appears to have been murdered and then thrown from a cliff called Devil's Perch. Henry Thoreau also happens along, and the two begin to work together to disprove the town officials' opinion that this was an accidental death and to unravel the mystery of who dunnit. Of course, this murder is only the beginning of the crimes to be sleuthed as this novel unfurls. There are many twists and turns and surprises all along the way in this clever tale of small town folks whose lives are interwoven and whose secrets abound. I would suggest this book for anyone who enjoys a good mystery and especially for fans of Henry David Thoreau and his naturalist views. I received a copy of this book free through Library Thing Member Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
interesting presentation, good plot, I really enjoyed it. Excellent light mystery.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Here is a tale of jealousy, betrayal, bloody murder, and awful revenge. I counted five murders, all given the closure of justice in the end. In its pages there is one of the most desperate, chilling, near death experiences I have ever read as a young man literally claws his way back to life. Also - a man-to-man fight to the death that is worthy of Jack Reacher. Yet this mystery is not a dark or brooding or gruesome story. It is full of life. It's about Henry Thoreau as a vital, happy, young man who uses his incredible powers of observation to prove himself positively Sherlockian as a sleuth. It is about two star-crossed young cousins, the narrators of the story, who simply cannot help but fall in love, again. With Henry, this dynamic trio uncovers the awful truth boiling beneath the surface of a lovely New England village and are pulled into a desperate confrontation in the Boston underworld. And Henry discovers the possibility of immortality. There are strong supporting characters with their own stories - a rogue Army Captain, a young Cherokee bent on revenge, a fearsome butcher, a deceitful banker and his tarty wife, a charming devil of a Frenchman, and more - they get under the skin, bad as some are, and you itch to find out what will happen to each in the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Can give a three because borrowed. For a better view try the Louisa Alcott new mystery series for an interesting view of the same people and area. Remember her mother was doing social work at time mom
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just saw the world devil so instently wanted to check it out because the devil rules