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A mystery from history – ‘The Truth of All Things’

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Maine author’s debut an enthralling read

There’s something magical about those moments when a book grabs your attention. It can be anything: a clever title, an evocative cover image or a jacket quote from a previously-enjoyed author. And when you’ve given your attention and picked up that book for a closer examination – BOOM! The hook is set.

So it was for me with Maine author Kieran Shields’s debut novel “The Truth of All Things” (Crown, $25). It’s a great title. The cover art is intriguing. So I took a look at the inside jacket copy. I was hooked before I was halfway to the bottom.

Archie Lean is a newly-appointed Deputy Marshal for the City of Portland. When he’s called in to investigate the death of a prostitute, he is confronted with a body that appears to have been ritualistically murdered, surrounded by a pentagram and pinned to the ground with a pitchfork – a killing method traditionally associated with the execution of witches.

Lean, stumped by the situation, finds himself enlisting the help of the brilliant criminalist Perceval Grey. Grey is considered to be one of the most brilliant detectives of the age, despite the perceived handicap of his half-Abanaki Indian heritage. Together with allies such as historian Helen Prescott and psychologist Dr. Virgil Steig, the pair finds themselves swept further and further into the depths as they discover some dark connections – namely to the Salem Witch Trials. Their journey takes them all over, from Portland to Salem, from lunatic asylums to the Harvard library, from opium dens to séances.

They are in a race against time to prevent even more deaths – including the deaths of people they each hold very closely to their hearts.

Historical mysteries are a funny thing. They either work really well or not at all. Mostly, it comes down to an author’s ability to convey the overall atmosphere of the time they are writing about. Shields does a particularly good job of this; while his characters certainly aren’t speaking any sort of archaic dialect, there are none of the jarring modernisms that sometimes mar this sort of fare.

In Perceval Grey, Shields has created an interesting deviation from the traditional literary “brilliant detective” character archetype. Those kinds of characters tend to have an outsider quality to them that directly connects to their perceptiveness – by being outside of everything, they can see everything. Grey’s outsider nature is inherent to his Abanaki blood. By the rules of his society, he fits in nowhere. It adds a real complexity and nuance that is sometimes absent with these sorts of superdetectives.

Lean is ostensibly our “main character” – it’s his perspective that we see most often – but he’s the main character in much the same way that Dr. Watson is the “main character” of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Lean is our everyman, our conduit to the marvel of watching an outlier like Perceval Grey at work. He’s smart in his own right, however; the good-naturedly antagonistic back-and-forth between Lean and Grey is proof enough of that.

Shields’s Portland is a vividly realized place; those familiar with the place will be delighted at the reminders of the city’s rich history, while those who are not will still have a distinct mental picture of the backdrop. This portrait of the rollicking port town of a century ago is visceral and engaging, setting the reader down in the echoes of Portland past.

The mystery itself is a well-crafted one, proving intellectually complex enough to maintain our attention until the very end. The twists and turns are sudden and severe, but never strain the bonds of our credulity. Walking that line of believability is a major key to the success of any mystery; Shields walks it masterfully.

“The Truth of All Things” is a rip-roaring page-turner of a mystery. It introduces us to a rich and revealing world populated with truthful, fully-realized characters. We can only hope that Kieran Shields gives us the opportunity to visit this place and these people once again.

Last modified on Thursday, 29 March 2012 08:16


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