I can't think of a recent novel that "scratched so many of my itches" when it comes to my historical interests: mystery, forensic science, the Civil War, patent medicines, 19th-century Spiritualists, and the Salem Witch Trials - and more - all wrapped up in one great story!
If you read this blog, you know how much I love to interview authors (see link sto other recent interviews here) and Mr. Shields was kind enough to answer some questions.
It is my great pleasure and privilege, then, to introduce Kieran Shields, offer a brief review of The Truth of All Things, and - especially - feature his thoughtful answers to my questions!
Per the publisher about the author (but you'll learn even more in our interview below!):
Kieran Shields grew up in Portland, Maine. He graduated from Dartmouth College and the University of Maine School of Law. He continues to reside along the coast of Maine with his wife and two children. His first novel, "The Truth of All Things," is arriving in March 2012. He is currently at work on the further adventures of Perceval Grey and Archie Lean.
...and 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.
My brief review:
I really LOVED this book...for a debut novel it exhibited a very experienced hand in settings, character and story development, tension, and pacing.
As I noted above, while I've had the pleasure of reading some great books recently, I can't think of one that touched so many of my interests all in one volume: the Civil War, though more than 25 years in the past, played a role in the lives of many of the characters as veterans; detective and crime fiction set in the 19th-century, especially in America, has become my favorite genre and this is a perfect fit; readers of this blog also know I have posted several times on my interest in 19th-century Spiritualism, and it - and the occult - play a significant role in this story; though not a main part of the story, patent/quack medicines (another focus of this blog) do make an appearance in the way of a traveling Native American "medicine show"; and finally, the history and lore of the Salem Witch Trials play a significant role in the story.
One of the main characters, family man and police deputy Archie Lean is very likeable and plays well against his irascible counterpart, Perceval Grey, a brilliant man of Native American heritage who is a former Pinkerton Agent. They employ their brawn, brains, and some nifty home laboratory work to solve the mystery of several murders, with the help of a strong, independent, and bookish woman (what's not to like?!) who is a historian and reference librarian at the local historical society.
The pacing in the last quarter of the story is FRENETIC and really keeps you on the edge of your seat; throughout the book one worries about the safety of the main characters, so I give the book high marks for tension and "stakes."
The setting of Portalnd, Maine, with some adventures in other parts of New England, is refreshingly unique, and his descriptions of the city and its environs is expertly done.
There is a lot of history in the book in terms of the Salem Witch Trials, and while many readers will be familiar with the basics, I learned a lot that was knew, especially in terms of the hysteria surrounding Native Americans and their purported connections to witchcraft, and - especially - connections between Salem Village, Maine, and the trials. Mr. Shields cleverly incorporates names and places associated with the trials into the story and while he describes some occult practices and rituals, he wisely avoids the trap of glorifying the occult or mixing fantasy with reality.
The ending definitely leaves open additional adventures for Lean and Grey (which the author confirms in our interview below) and I can't wait to read them!
BEST Vocabulary Word in the Book: "Thaumaturgic"
And now - the best part - an interview with Mr. Kieran Shields!
Jim Schmidt (JS): Please tell us a little about yourself and why you decided to become a writer.
Kieran Shields (KS): I first started to think about possibly writing a novel when I was in college, but the idea stayed in the hypothetical stages for years as I went on to law school and a career. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but only when the subject matter gripped me. The idea of writing for the sake of writing, about a random subject chosen or assigned by someone else, never inspired me. So I’ve never attended any writing seminars or conferences or creative writing courses. In fact, the only writing course I’ve ever taken was legal writing, during my first year of law school. That was almost like an anti-creative writing class. So when it came time for me to write fiction I was probably worse off than just starting at square one.
I had come across some events from Maine colonial history that took root in my imagination and wouldn’t go away. My day job didn’t provide enough of a creative outlet, so my mind started focusing on writing about these historical subjects. As I researched the time period, I realized there was a story that had been lying there silent for centuries, that it deserved to be told, and that I could tell it as well as anyone. I still didn’t want to be a “writer,” I just wanted to write this one specific story. Only after I spent years writing that first story, which is still gathering dust on my hard drive, did I realize that the act of writing had gotten into my veins and that I wanted to go on writing other stories.
JS: What was the inspiration for The Truth of All Things?
KS: I wanted to write a mystery and decided that I wanted to give it some spooky, occult overtones. From my earlier historical research I got the idea of working in the Salem witch trials. I figured it would be an intriguing subject that most people are at least familiar with, but not a lot of people would have a detailed knowledge of all the weird details and elements that were a part of those tragic events. My original plot outline had a strong connection to the anniversary of the witch trials so I looked at the bicentennial year of 1892. That period had a lot of appeal in terms of the lack of forensic science, the gothic feel of the age, and the strong interest in spiritualism and the occult that existed in the second half of the 19th century. For additional inspiration I thought of a variety of sources, including the works of authors I enjoyed when I was younger, like Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft. I took my general impressions from those genres and decided to mesh them with some of the peculiarities of my historical research on Maine and Salem and then just kept twisting things this way and that until it all fit together in my mind.
"It was a city of slopes, curves, and dips carved by glaciers and now criss-crossed by a network of angled streets and blocks, unfettered by any sense of regularity and uniformity. Portland's maze of cobbled roads was the result of two and a half centuries of fisherman and merchants driven by immediate necessity and that economy of steps that occurs naturally in a place where winters often lasted five months out of the year.” - page 29 - The Truth of All Things
JS: Portland is a wonderful and unique setting for the story...would the characters from the book still recognize the city or its environs in some ways?
KS: Yes, I believe that, despite a hundred and twenty years of change, they would still recognize the outline of the city and many of its neighborhoods. Portland Neck, the peninsula that formed the original city is still obviously hemmed in by the water and can’t truly alter its appearance. In some ways the city was as busy, or even busier as a port, in the late 1800s than it is today. From across the harbor you still see the Portland Observatory rising on Munjoy Hill at the east of the city and some of the same churches steeples still dot the skyline. With a few notable exceptions the streets hold the same irregular layout as they did back then. Some of the more notable structures, such as the grand Union Station, have been tragically lost. But such losses did spur on a concerted effort to preserve Portland’s history and architecture. It may look a lot more stylish and trendy now, but there’s still plenty of the original grittiness. I think Grey and Lean and the others would feel very much at home in Portland’s Old Port, the mostly brick downtown heart of the city where you can still pass over the paving stones on narrow, uneven side streets. It still has a great feel to it.
JS: Readers of this blog will especially like the Civil War connections in your study, especially in terms of veterans such as the altruistic Dr. Steig, the troubled Tom Doran, and the enigmatic Col. Blanchard. Was this purposeful? If so, why? Do you have a particular personal interest in the Civil War (and/or its "shadows")?
KS: I do find the Civil War fascinating, yet I wouldn’t say that I have any particular personal interest in the Civil War. In fact, when I set out to research this time period of the late 19th century, it struck me as rather odd that when I realized that I didn’t have a keener interest in the Civil War and its lingering effects. I think in the consciousness of New England, it may be true that the Revolutionary War still gets top billing over the Civil War. Perhaps it’s because here in Maine we’re so far removed geographically from the battle sites that it’s easier to lose touch with the events of that time and simply consign them to that other place of “The Past” that no longer holds any particular relevance for us. This may be especially true in this age when things that happened two hours ago are now yesterday’s news and the details of events from 10 or 20 years ago are ancient history. But that geographical distance, which would have felt exponentially greater in an age when news and people traveled so slowly, didn’t apply to Mainers of that day. Maine played a significant role in the war. Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels breathed new life into the memory of Joshua Chamberlain and Little Round Top. But that only highlighted a single aspect of Maine’s contribution to the Union. Maine sent more soldiers, as a share of population, than any other state in the Union. The war re-shaped Maine’s politics and its economy in ways that I’ll leave to the experts to discuss. Everyone in Portland would have been touched by the losses of the war. So sounding those echoes felt right in the book. It fit into one of the underlying themes of the story, which is the difficulty in ever fully escaping the past. Whether it’s the scars of the Civil War, or the almost forgotten links between Portland and tragedy of the Salem witch trials, or the personal traumas of a character’s own history, the past plays a hand in forging present identity. Grey and Lean have to come to grips with that and uncover those lingering connections to reveal the mystery in The Truth of All Things.
JS: Among the most fascinating aspects of the book for me were the new things I learned about the Salem Witch Trials, especially the connections to Maine and to Native Americans. Were you already aware of these connections? What new things did you learn about American witch folklore?
KS: Prior to writing The Truth of All Things, I’d written another, as yet unpublished, novel set in Maine during the colonial period of the late 17th century. So I was aware, in general, of links between English colonists in Maine, their relations with the Native Americans, and the Salem witch trials. Some of these links are made explicit in the actual testimony from those trials. And the contemporary views of the New England colonists that the Native Americans were devil worshippers was well established. But in researching the trials more closely for this novel I came to learn just how strong these connections were. Writers such as Charles Upham, in his 1867 work on the Salem witch trials, drew comparisons between the views of the Native Americans and the accused witches as both being servants of the devil. Cornell history professor Mary Beth Norton does an excellent job in her wonderful 2002 book In the Devil’s Snare of highlighting and analyzing the parallels between the colonial views of Native Americans and their views of witchcraft. For example, the tortures that the “victims” in Salem claimed to suffer at the spectral hands of the accused witches were sometimes described in language strikingly similar to the descriptions of Native American atrocities as reported along the wartime frontier in Maine. Another element that I was aware of, but surprised by its extent, had to do with gender roles. Typically the trials are thought of as teenage girls accusing other women of witchcraft. While that is largely true, history shows there is a surprising role played by men in both the roles of accuser and accused.
JS: In other reviews, the partnership of Archie Lean and Perceval Gray has been likened to that of Holmes and Watson. I guess I see it as more complicated (and more interesting!) than that: it seems to be a pairing of the "old" in Lean: a cop who is trustworthy and competent but earned his position via patronage and not any particular training, with a traditional mission of "keeping the peace"; and the "new" in Grey: a man who represents the increased professionalization modernization of *solving* crimes. Can you comment on how you meant for the two men to complement each other?
KS: Let me start by saying that I love the duo of Holmes and Watson. They’re the best. And while it’s hard not to take inspiration from that pair, I do view Lean and Grey as different in their backgrounds, attitudes and outlooks on life, society, and crime. As for how Lean and Grey are meant to complement each other, there’s obviously a differing professional viewpoint or methodology employed by the two men, as you hit on. And they do have different motivations: Lean’s sense of moral duty versus Grey’s pursuit of the intellectual challenge. Lean is sworn to protect the city and its people. Despite his occupation, he still has an optimistic view of humanity. Grey also cares about seeing justice done and protecting the innocent, but he seems equally fascinated with peering at, and trying to understand, the rotten underside of society and its worst qualities. Even if he can’t reveal these, he can at least remind himself not to think too highly of the society he’s a part of or ever underestimate the weakness, frailty, and potential cruelty that exists in people. Apart from professionally, I think the way the two men most complement each other is in their personal interactions, their burgeoning friendship. Holmes and Watson share a great friendship but I think there’s more equilibrium to the relationship of Grey and Lean. In Conan Doyle’s stories, Watson is not the bumbling sidekick he’s often portrayed as, but he’s clearly Holmes’s intellectual inferior. While he occasionally voices frustration or other negative thoughts about Holmes, there’s a certain amount of hero worship in Dr. Watson’s narration. There’s no fawning admiration between Lean and Grey. Lean isn’t dependent upon Grey for his role in the story. With or without him, he’d be after the truth, maybe not finding it, but always digging away. Lean respects Grey’s intellect but he doesn’t bow down before it. The two men find each other useful, they make one another laugh, and for the most part have faith in each other. But they also annoy one another, get on each others nerves and are never hesitant to give the other grief. Like real friends.
JS: Can we expect more in the way of adventures with the intrepid Lean and Grey?
KS: I’m very happy to report that I just recently finished the sequel and hope to see it on bookshelves in the not too distant future.
JS: Any advice for aspiring novelists that read (or write!) this blog?
KS: There are countless stories out there. If you’re going to write and take any kind of satisfaction from it, then find the story you deeply want to write. Tell a story that you care about, one that you believe is worth writing. But remember, if you want anyone else to care about it, you have to give them reason to care. It’s not a reader’s job to be interested in what you have to say. It’s your job to say something interesting—sentence after sentence, page after page. You can write just for yourself if you want to, but you’ll have to remember that’s who you wrote for. You’ll have no grounds to complain if no one else cares about the story you’ve told. And you can read books or articles about writing tips and dialogue and plot, voice and style, and everything else, but none of that actually makes words appear on the page. You have to put your fingers on the keys. If you want, you can spend hours and hours reading what your favorite author has to say on the subject of writing, but he or she is not coming over to your house to sit at your computer and write your story for you. If you want to write you have to actually do it. Stop thinking about doing it or the reasons for not doing it. Decide to do it and then forge on.