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by K.N. Shields
Sphere, January 2013
496 pages
6.99 GBP
ISBN: 075154910X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Between February and May 1692 a series of trials for witchcraft were held in the Massachusetts towns of Salem, Ipswich and Andover. The most infamous were conducted in Salem Town. Nineteen people were hanged, one pressed to death under boulders and eight more condemned. About fifty confessed to being witches, more than fifty others were imprisoned, some of whom died in jail in foul conditions. This awful case of mass hysteria has been used to warn of the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism and lapses in the process of law and has been deeply influential in America's subsequent history.

K.N. Shields, born and raised in neighbouring Maine, uses this grim background as a base for his new novel and makes a frighteningly convincing job of it. Two hundred years later a prostitute's body is found in a machine shop of the Portland Company, from which the town takes its name. She has apparently been ritualistically mutilated. Deputy Marshal Archie Lean is baffled, but help arrives in the shape of visiting half-Abernaki Indian Pinkerton man Perceval Grey, a brilliant but unpredictable detective devoted to the new interpretations of his work by the great Austrian criminologist Dr Hans Gross.

The pair make a prickly partnership, with the down-to-earth marshal at times almost an unwilling Watson to Grey's more aesthetic Holmes. But Lean is no blundering bumpkin, although there must be some doubt as to how many law enforcement officers in 1892 quoted the poet Spencer in conversation! Shields does not miss a trick. The spectre of racism the Indian wars on the east coast were still recent memory and lost little in recounting is present throughout the tale with Grey's relationship with his rich white grandfather an interesting sub-plot. As does the appearance of feisty, independent single mum librarian Helen Prescott and her uncle, a partially disabled former Army surgeon who displays a surprisingly modern knowledge of forensics.

Together these allies uncover and investigate more killings, part of a mad and evil plot to call up the devil in the shape of one of the so-called 'ringleaders' of the Salem witches on the two hundredth anniversary of his hanging a date they believe has special significance.

The plot is sound and cleverly crafted. But it is Shield's painstaking research into life in his home town at the end of the 19th century that brings it all to vivid life from Lean's worries about his wife, pregnant with their second child, his unsuccessful attempts to quit smoking at her request, through the descriptions of the shops and Helen Prescott and her daughter's dresses to the strident militarism of the temperance movement, a reminder if one was needed of the dangers of extremism. Added to this are the lovingly drawn characters and descriptions of even minor players that make everything so real. The equivocating mayor, blown this way and that by the 1890s version of opinion polls, and the bishop hiding a secret behind an outward show of sanctity are all too familiar today

The unpleasant details of the killings are almost incidental in what overall is a compelling and fascinating read. Even if you've no interest in the witchcraft genre this is a clever, beautifully researched and well-written mystery and well worth a read.

John Cleal is a former soldier and journalist with an interest in medieval history. He divides his time between France and England.

Reviewed by John Cleal, February 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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