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A different kind of detective A Study in Revenge'

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Maine author's second historical mystery an even stronger offering

Last year, Maine author Kieran Shields blew me away with his debut novel 'The Truth of All Things;' I even included it in my 'Best Reads of 2012.' It was a wonderfully constructed historical mystery populated by a cast of fascinating characters.

His latest book is 'A Study in Revenge' (Crown, $25). In it, we once again pay a visit to the turn-of-the-century Portland that Shields has meticulously created. We also get to become reacquainted with his notable creations - Portland policeman Archie Lean and the indefatigable detective Perceval Grey.

It has been a year since Archie Lean and Perceval Grey first worked together. However, a mysterious murder tinged with hints of the occult has Lean seeking Grey's assistance once more. A local thug is found dead in the attic of an abandoned house, burned to a crisp. This gruesome crime would be bad enough, but there are extenuating circumstances that hint at a much deeper, darker mystery.

You see, the criminal was already dead and buried. The body was exhumed and brought to this place to be burned, left as some sort of message or warning.

The esoteric nature of the case has Lean calling once more on the half-Abenaki detective Grey; before long, the two men find themselves swept up once more into a rapidly growing and shifting conspiracy. There's the mystery of the burned man. There's the disappearance of a noted artifact. And there's a quest to find a missing woman. The three mysteries intersect, drawing Lean and Grey into a shadowy world where very little is as it seems; the notable (and notorious) Webster family, ancient Native American lore and the mythic nature of alchemy are all a part of the slowly unraveling riddle.

Shields continues his good work in repurposing the idea of the literary superdetective. Perceval Grey is one of the most engaging characters in recent memory, and he continues to grow. His half-Abenaki heritage comes a bit more to the forefront; the sense of a man without a place is heightened. Shields also contrasts Grey an Indian raised among white men with the character of Chief Jefferson, a white man who grew up among native tribes. This contrast serves to clarify Grey's outsider status.

Archie Lean makes a wonderful counterpoint to the reason-bound Grey, his combination of stolidity and sarcasm juxtaposing nicely. He is a man driven by his heart; that characterization serves to offset Grey's life of the mind. The comparison of the Grey-Lean dynamic to that of a Holmes-Watson is inevitable, but rather than be bound by that template, the author instead creates a relationship that, while undeniably evocative of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation, is entirely unique in and of itself.

The third star of this showcase is the city of Portland itself. The author's research into what the city once was is comprehensive; Shields has recreated late 19th-century Portland in meticulous and loving detail. The richness of that setting gives his characters a vivid and vibrant setting within which their tale might unfold.

Granted, none of this truly matters without an engrossing story. Shields proves yet again to be a deft hand with mystery, allowing the tale to unfold at its own pace. Nothing is rushed; there is a leisureliness to his prose that never once feels overly slow. This understanding of when to pull the reins and when to use the whip makes the peaks and valleys of the mystery including a number of exquisitely executed twists and turns engaging and effective.

'A Study in Revenge' shows that Kieran Shields is hitting his stride. He has created a character whose adventures warrant our attention and a world that we can't help but wish to revisit. A reader can truly lose himself in this past Portland; we can only hope that we won't have to wait too long for the next installment in the adventures of Perceval Grey.


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