About the book
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
This book was sent as a review copy by the publisher.
When I was approached to review The Truth of All Things, I almost said no. Not because the book didn’t look good, but because this is a speculative fiction review blog and The Truth of All Things is historical more than anything else. Therefore, in order for this to work we all need to play a little game of pretend. We pretend that The Truth of All Things is both historical and speculative. The historical part is obvious. Since the plot has to do with the Salem Witch Trials, and witches tend to be speculative, let’s pretend that this makes the book speculative as well. There you go. Now I can review it.
The truth of the matter is that I accepted The Truth of All Things to review for purely selfish reasons. I am absolutely fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials and anything to do with them. When I’m presented with the opportunity to read a book whose plot focuses on this incredibly dark point in American history, I can’t say no. It’s some sort of compulsion that forces me to say yes. Yes, I will read and review this book and yes, I will stretch the plot in any way I possibly can to get this historical book to fit the parameters of my speculative fiction review blog. Yes, I will do this because I must; because I’m obsessed, and that’s what obsessed people do.
The Truth of All Things takes about one hundred pages to really get going. Those first hundred pages, while interesting, can burn a reader out if they aren’t in the right mood. Shields spends much of those pages setting up the time, atmosphere and characters as well as the case they will be solving. After much dancing around, exploring minute details, and important social issues, right when the reader might be ready to put the book down and say, “Yes, I get it already, let’s move on please!” things finally come to a head and the plot really gets moving. Yes, these first hundred pages are long, and will probably make the reader rather anxious for something more, but more is coming, and it’s worth waiting for.
The Truth of All Things reads like a Sherlock Holmes and Watson novel, with a Detective Grey and Deputy Marshal Archie Lean playing the two infamous roles. If you are a fan of Sherlock and Watson, you’ll probably love their relationship and their dry, understated humor. Their connection to their famous literary counterparts becomes obvious almost immediately and while it adds a fun twist to a dark tale, I did find myself, at times, wishing the two protagonists would step outside of their Sherlock and Watson boxes and become a little more unique.
The book centers on three main characters, the two I listed above and then a female widowed librarian named Helen Prescott. Helen is where I have the biggest problem, probably because you can smell the literary cliché’s rolling off of her in waves as soon as she enters the book. The female widowed librarian living in Maine in the 1800’s. She’s a walking, talking love interest who will, occasionally, bemoan the status of women in society; however, she rises above it and accomplishes things most women could never dream of by helping Lean and Grey solve this grisly murder. The kicker is, you probably don’t even have to read the book to know any of that, you can probably guess it all by my short description of her at the beginning of this paragraph. Prescott is the sort of female character you’ve read in a hundred other books. There is nothing new to her. She’s a cardboard cutout, and that’s too bad because as a historian helping with a really interesting murder case and being responsible for much of what the reader will learn about the Salem Witch Trials, she could have been a lot more unique. As it stands, she’s sadly forgettable.
I mentioned a love interest, and I should elaborate a bit on that, because, while you won’t be shocked with who it’s between, as a person who really doesn’t like romance in books I actually think Shields does a wonderful job at focusing the book on the case and the characters more than the love. The romance is subtle, and he could easily expand upon it in further books, but the author takes a “take it or leave it” route and I appreciate that. The romance is easily overlooked, as is all the predictable aspects of it. That’s its strength.
Another weakness The Truth of All Things has is the fact that its secondary characters are nearly nonexistent almost to the point of not being developed at all. For example, Lean’s pregnant wife is occasionally marched out, but there’s no real point to her besides showing that Lean has a wife and she’s pregnant. She has nearly no personality; there’s simply nothing to her and that’s how most of the secondary characters are. With a little more development they could have added some incredible realism to a novel which needs more realistic characters in it.
The investigation itself is fascinating, and I found the aspects of it that fit the time in which the book takes place to be incredibly well done. However, Grey does march out some beyond-the-times investigation methods and while it fit with his Sherlockian disposition, they seemed to stick out like a sore thumb and really hindered my overall believability of portions of the investigation itself.
Maine itself comes to shocking life as I read this book. Shields goes into incredible detail with city layouts, cabs, ports, trains and more. Maine residents might be able to follow this talk, but to someone who lives out west, many of these details became overwhelming and unimportant to me as I eventually started glossing over them. However, the social aspects, and the discrimination against natives and things of that nature were very well done, incredibly realistic and very interesting. It was these social details that went a long way toward improving the realism of the work as a whole.
At the end of the day, The Truth of All Things is an enjoyable trip through a fascinating period of history. I learned more about the Salem Witch Trials than I ever expected to. The Sherlock and Watson relationship between Lean and Grey goes a long way toward helping the reader overlook some more troubling issues with characterization. Shields’ writing is lyrical and easy to follow; descriptive without going overboard. He brings Maine to life and his historical research and detail is impeccable. All in all, despite its flaws, The Truth of All Things is a debut work to be proud of.