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Monday 24 December 2012

‘The Salem Witch Society’ by K N Shields

Published by Sphere, in B-format paperback,  
3 January 2013.
ISBN: 978-0-7515-4910-2
A murder victim is found late at night, laid out in a way which suggests a ritual killing. As the investigation proceeds, details come to light which begin to reveal a pattern, and the detectives find themselves following a trail and unravelling a puzzle which will lead them to unexpected places, a potentially world-changing discovery and ultimately into mortal danger.
Sounds familiar? Perhaps, but be assured that The Salem Witch Society is most certainly not a re-run of The da Vinci Code.
For one thing, it’s far better written. For another, it’s not a high-octane page-turner to whizz through in a couple of sittings. The publisher describes it as a high-concept thriller, which I found to mean a dense, chewy and ultimately satisfying read, to be taken at a steady pace, the better to appreciate the wealth of historical detail and rich character development as well as the fascinatingly complex plot.

The main setting is Portland, Maine, at the end of the 19th century: not an obvious connection with the Salem witch trials until it emerges that they took place just a few hours away, and almost exactly two hundred years earlier: a detail which proves significant as the detectives investigate one murder, uncover two earlier ones and try to prevent several more, all with overtones of black magic.

The author has clearly done his homework. Not only is a great deal about the dark history of Salem woven into the narrative; Portland itself is a richly drawn background; and the Abenaki Indians, the treatment of the mentally ill in the 19th century and the early  development of modern forensic techniques all have a part to play.

For me any successful crime novel or thriller stands or falls on the characters; they bring the most hackneyed plot to life, and if I want to know more about them and care what happens to them, I’ll keep reading. (Not that this plot is in the least hackneyed; quite the opposite in fact.) Here there are three main protagonists: down-to-earth police detective Archie Lean, who tries hard to balance a stable family life with doing the right thing in the workplace; eccentric, enigmatic and sceptical consulting detective Perceval Grey, half-Abenaki but brought up in the white world; and intelligent, feisty Helen Prescott, a clear-sighted historical researcher who earns the men’s respect from the outset. All are sharply drawn and well-rounded, and so too are the many other individuals they encounter in the course of their labyrinthine adventure.
For a debut, The Salem Witch Society is a very accomplished piece of work; in fact I was surprised to find it was the author’s first novel. K N Shields is one to watch with great interest.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

K N Shields  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. This is his first novel.

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