Secret Souls

Blown about by storms of sensuality

"Are not our passions our greatest affliction and severest test?" That's the question at the dark heart of "The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin" [re-released by University of New England Press, $16.95, eBook $9.99] by Robert J. Begiebing. As you turn the pages, the answer becomes increasingly clear.

The story - based on a true incident, a murder in Exeter - is set in Colonial New England in the mid-1600s, a time when "fornication and adultery are the most common crimes."

In this case, those crimes of sensuality spawn one that is far worse - murder. As the journal of Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts reported at the time: "The wife of one Will[x] of Exeter was found in the river dead, her neck broken ... the privy parts swollen, etc., as if she had been much abused."

Her name was Kathrin Coffin. How she gets to that awful end and who's responsible is the central story line. But on it hangs a much more important consideration - the very nature of man and woman, separately and together.

At some point you'll wonder, as I did, how much research Begiebing must have done to be able to describe early American life in such detail. He does it so well you feel like you're living it.

When you first start reading the book (for which the movie rights have been optioned), you may find it a challenge - the syntax and cadence are of the time, and you have to adjust to unfamiliar language like "learned fervors and vauntings," "the wormwood of abandonment" and "local tosspot and rakehell." Have patience, you do adjust and it's worth your while.

This book is beautifully written, with richly drawn characters and expertly layered plot lines. As they probably didn't say in the 17th century - it's a page turner.

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