The Salem Witch Society

Written by KN Shields — There have been numerous blends of supernatural fantasy and crime fiction in recent years, but don’t worry, this book takes place in the matter-of-fact world of the New England freelance detective Perceval Grey, and deputy marshal Archie Lean. They’re based in Portland, the state capital of Maine, and the year is 1892. Things get off to a grisly start when Lean is called out to a crime scene – and quite a scene it is. The mutilated and bitten (yes, bitten) body of a prostitute is found in a workshop in the poor part of town. Her corpse has been pinned to the ground with a pitchfork and configured into the five points of a satanic pentagram like the one on the book’s cover.

Mayor Ingraham is aghast, and agrees to involve Grey in the case. An occult killer loose in Portland is not a vote winner, even though he has little sympathy for the deceased woman. Grey and Lean go about things in a manner reminiscent of Holmes and Watson, and are joined at times by single mother Helen Prescott. She’s the niece of the coroner Dr Steig, and both are drawn to the case. The whiskered doctor is interested not only in pathology but also psychiatry, having treated many Civil War veterans. Prescott, meanwhile, works at the Portland Public Library, which hosts the Maine Historical Society, and they’ve been commemorating the bicentenary of the Salem Witch Trials.

There seems to be a connection between the case and New England’s witchcraft heritage, but Grey, Lean and Prescott have a hard time discerning what the link is. Members of the local Temperance Union convolute matters by trying to silence a witness who’s seen the prostitute with her John, meanwhile the leader of a local occult group is extremely unhelpful. Perhaps these people have something to hide?

Further gruesome murders are discovered but it seems Grey and Lean are the only ones who can see how the cases are connected. Gradually the mayor loses interest in solving the girl’s murder, and he loses his patience with Grey and Lean too. However the pair carry on to the bitter end and the story involves visits to an opium den, a witch’s hilltop hovel, the Portland Observatory, a cathedral and several down and dirty taverns. There’s a bit of grave robbing too, for good measure.

The Salem Witch Society is more than a book, it presents a whole world fascinatingly crafted by KN Shields. He is an expert on Victorian Maine and describes the city in vivid detail. Similarly, his research into what happened in Salem, Massachusetts back in 1692, gives pattern to the storyline. The killer has taken inspiration from these events and truly believes in The Black Man. At times, however, the extensive detail dulls the sharpness of the story. Just as you’re hooked by the intrigue of the plot, a new wave of exposition washes away some of the intensity. For me, it wanted a touch more pace.

The characters are wonderfully drawn. Perceval Grey, for instance, turns out to be half-Native American. Raised by an upper-class, white grandfather, he had the finest of educations, and takes a superior bearing with him wherever he goes. Yet he knows the language of the local Indian tribe, and is at times treated as they are, like an unwanted gypsy. And, of course, native people were thought to be in league with the Devil by the Puritans in Salem, which adds another twist to Grey’s involvement. Lean, meanwhile, brings some heart to sit beside Grey’s intellect. He’ll act on instinct and emotion. He’s married, leaving Grey to the potential love interest with Helen Prescott.

Cleverly written, complex and lengthy, this is one for lovers of historical crime fiction. If you’re craving a New World take on Sherlock Holmes which is more Conan Doyle than Downey Jr, with a sprinkling of Gothic horror, you will also enjoy this book. There’s a rich world to discover in its pages, and the characters Shields has conjured up leave plenty of scope for further Perceval Grey mysteries. It’s released 3 January.

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£5.63

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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