” Two hundred years after the Salem witch trials, in the summer of 1892, a grisly new witch hunt is beginning….
When newly appointed Deputy Marshal Archie Lean is called in to investigate a prostitute’s murder in Portland, Maine, he’s surprised to find the body laid out like a pentagram and pinned to the earth with a pitchfork. He’s even more surprised to learn that this death by “sticking” is a traditional method of killing a witch.
Baffled by the ritualized murder scene, Lean secretly enlists the help of historian Helen Prescott and brilliant criminalist Perceval Grey. Distrusted by officials because of his mixed Abenaki Indian ancestry, Grey is even more notorious for combining modern investigative techniques with an almost eerie perceptiveness. Although skeptical of each other’s methods, together the detectives pursue the killer’s trail through postmortems and opium dens, into the spiritualist societies and lunatic asylums of gothic New England.
Before the killer closes in on his final victim, Lean and Grey must decipher the secret pattern to these murders–a pattern hidden within the dark history of the Salem witch trials.”
Thoughts: In The Truth of All Things, Kieran Shields attempts to recreate the traditional murder mystery. He uses elements of a psychological thriller, of the supernatural, of historical fiction, and of modern-day true crime stories to present his tale of a murder that is not quite what it appears to be. The witch hunt aspect takes a surprisingly long time to develop, but once it does, the plot quickly tangles into a den of history and psychological illness. The complicated resolution provides enough closure for readers who want a stand-alone mystery while leaving the door open for future adventures of Deputy Marshal Lean, Mr. Grey, and Mrs. Prescott.
The Truth of All Things runs the real danger of falling prey to its own cleverness. The plot twists are many and so intertwined that it becomes difficult for a reader to perceive the individual threads. The last-minute twists and turns are so numerous that they soon feel almost contrived, as if Mr. Shield’s desire to surprise the reader with a crafty ending outweighed the need to provide a clear and concise plot. In addition, the resolution of the mystery is drawn out in such a way that it leads one to believe that Mr. Shields had difficulties deciding how best to solve his own mystery. The result is a mystery that is a touch too complicated and slightly too drawn out for easy, mindless enjoyment, but only just barely.
The main characters of The Truth of All Things are equally complicated and puzzling. Archie is fairly well-described. His motivations are clear, and a reader feels a close connection to his desire to protect the innocent and provide a better life for his family. Helen is on the opposite end of the spectrum and is the least clear of the three heroes. Her past, her relationship with her uncle, as well as her thoughts and motivations are never adequately explained, if at all, and a reader finds it difficult to understand why she involves herself in the mystery at all. Once involved, she is the equivalent of today’s modern technicians – those quirky masters of research who stay in the office uncovering all the dirt there is on the suspects while their fellow detectives hit the pavement and rely on their research to direct their own searches. In view of the details provided of Archie, Helen’s lack of backstory is surprising and slightly unwelcome, as one wants to feel an emotional connection to the characters in order to better appreciate any danger in which they might find themselves. One does not have this connection with the mysterious Helen.
The third hero, Perceval Grey, is a mix between Archie and Helen. Readers get greater insight to Grey’s past, making it easier to feel that necessary connection with him. However, his motivations remain unclear. His thought processes are never explained except via dialogue, and his actions are almost robotic in their exactness. He is one hero in which a reader does not get direct insight into his thoughts and feelings because the omniscient narrator never tells the story from his point of view. If, in the crime mystery canon, Archie is the bumbling but beloved old-school detective, out to achieve the most good he can for those that can no longer help themselves, and Helen is the quirky but highly-skilled research technician, then Grey is the mysterious, brilliant, highly logical, and thoroughly unemotional investigator with the unsavory past that propels him from one mystery to the next. One cannot help but wish that Mr. Shields had chosen not to adopt these archetypes, as the efforts he makes to provide a relatively new type of murder mystery fails to bear fruit with his usage of such clichés.
Mr. Shields’ debut novel is an intriguing blend of modern-day forensics, mysticism, and a good old-fashioned murder mystery. Archie, Helen, and Perceval make for an unusual crime-fighting trio, altogether too modern for the time period but well-suited to the mystery at hand. With its intricate plot twists and reliance on knowledge of the Salem witch trials, the story itself might prove to be too complicated for most readers. More importantly, there are just enough unanswered questions that leave a reader to understand that there will be more collaborations in store for this hapless trio. As a standalone mystery, The Truth of All Things works fairly well, although it toes the line at being a tad too clever for appropriate enjoyment. The success of a potential series is more nebulous without greater character development or less-complicated mysteries. It is easy to chalk up the faults of The Truth of All Things to an over-eager first-time novelist and one can hope that time, experience, and careful attention to feedback will correct these issues in Mr. Shields’ next novels.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Julie Cepler at Crown Publishing Group for my review copy!