“Postbellum America makes for a haunting backdrop in this historical and supernatural tale of moonlit cemeteries, masked balls, cunning mediums, and terrifying secrets waiting to be unearthed by an intrepid crime reporter.
The year is 1869, and the Civil War haunts the city of Philadelphia like a stubborn ghost. Mothers in black continue to mourn their lost sons. Photographs of the dead adorn dim sitting rooms. Maimed and broken men roam the streets. One of those men is Edward Clark, who is still tormented by what he saw during the war. Also constantly in his thoughts is another, more distant tragedy—the murder of his mother at the hands of his father, the famed magician Magellan Holmes…a crime that Edward witnessed when he was only ten.
Now a crime reporter for one of the city’s largest newspapers, Edward is asked to use his knowledge of illusions and visual trickery to expose the influx of mediums that descended on Philadelphia in the wake of the war. His first target is Mrs. Lucy Collins, a young widow who uses old-fashioned sleight of hand to prey on grieving families. Soon, Edward and Lucy become entwined in the murder of Lenora Grimes Pastor, the city’s most highly regarded—and by all accounts, legitimate—medium, who dies mid-séance. With their reputations and livelihoods at risk, Edward and Lucy set out to find the real killer, and in the process unearth a terrifying hive of secrets that reaches well beyond Mrs. Pastor.
Blending historical detail with flights of fancy, Things Half in Shadow is a riveting thriller where Medium and The Sixth Sense meet The Alienist—and where nothing is quite as it seems…”
Thoughts: Many a novel discusses the postbellum period of American history, during which a nation divided must reconcile and overcome past ills. One of the more fascinating elements to come out of this period is the spiritualism movement. Things Half in Shadow explores the understandable obsession with spiritualism and exposes its shadier side. There is more to the story, however, than exposing the fraudulent behavior of a select few or the thought-provoking argument that they are providing a much-needed service in offering solace to suffering mothers, fathers, and spouses.
One wants to like Things Half in Shadow more than one ends up doing so in the end. For one thing, the story cannot make up its mind whether it wants to be a police procedural, a thriller, a fantasy, or a murder mystery. There are elements of all four genres within the story but nothing well-blended into a seamless narrative. Then there is the issue with Edward Clark. He is blatantly ignoring his true feelings, too convinced of his self-righteousness, and not nearly as interesting when he is trying to be socially acceptable as he is when he is flouting those same rules. His fears about someone discovering his past are difficult to understand, and as such, the impetus for Lucy’s blackmail never really makes sense.
To make matters worse, Lucy’s and Edward’s dynamics are a foregone conclusion well before they ever start to work together in earnest. In this, again Edward proves to be the distraction as he first denies and then fights his growing attraction to Lucy. At least Lucy has the gumption to call things as she sees them regardless of propriety and is unabashedly unapologetic of her profession, her choices, or her past. Of the two, Lucy is the more interesting of the partners and one of more fascinating characters of the entire novel precisely because of her forthrightness.
One area in which the novel excels is in discussing Edward’s and his fellow soldiers’ ongoing trauma from the war. This is one outcome of the Civil War not often explored or expressly mentioned in postbellum stories, but soldiers returning from war suffered as much from PTSD then as they do now. Mr. Finn does not ignore this aspect of post-war life and does an excellent job describing Edward’s emotional state, his survivors’ guilt, and recurring nightmares. In this one area, Edward is fascinating in his fragility and suffering.
The entire novel tries too much to be different from anything else. It is not just a ghost story but a ghost story with a conspiracy theory around it. It is not just a murder mystery but one that is seemingly impossible to solve given the circumstances. It is not a coming-of-age story or even a cautionary tale but all of those and more. The end result is a narrative that hurries from one big reveal to the next without adequate explanation and with convenient plot devices in place to resolve tricky situations with minimal effort. Sadly, the way the novel ends leads one to believe that it is the first in a series, as there is very little resolution and too many subplots left open for future stories. Unfortunately, Things Half in Shadow is not successful enough as a story to warrant future tales, at least without requiring massive changes to Edward’s character and greater explanations to his shame about his parentage and the scandal that would result if anyone discovers his true origins.