Historical fiction has been quite a rage among bibliophiles over the last decade. The craze, of course, began with Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”, though most forget his previous work that marks the beginning of the Robert Langdon trilogy, “Angels and Demons”, with “The Lost Symbol” completing the trilogy.
Since then, several authors have tasted success with similar works. Prominent among them would be Raymond Khoury with his “Templar” series and Kate Mosse with her “Labyrinth” and “Sepulchre”. Readers may also recall more recent works in this genre such as “The Shakespeare Secret” by J.L. Carrell, “Sphinx” by T.S. Learner and “The Stonehenge Legacy” by Sam Christer. While the plots obviously differ, all of them have one common thread — an event back in time, which is then connected to a contemporary one. K.N. Shields’s debut novel, “The Salem Witch Society”, is the latest in this genre.
Let’s get to the basic plot first. A prostitute is found murdered in a manner which points to a ritualistic crime in the town of Portland, Maine, in 1892, and three other deaths are unearthed to reveal a common trait. The city’s deputy marshal Archie Lean enlists the help of former Pinkerton’s detective Perceval Grey and researcher Helen Prescott to show that the killer’s actions link him to the Salem witch trials of 1692.
This is a historical event, when several men and women were executed as they were suspected of being involved in witchcraft, in the town of Salem in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. It is often held that the trials were the last attempt to establish a theocracy in New England.
The plot twists and turns and takes us through murder after murder, as it becomes clear that the killer is literally on a “witch-hunt”, committing human sacrifices to awaken the dark spirits and acquire supernatural powers. Finally, after a mistaken identity, the killer is exposed and the story climaxes with his death.
Grey’s actions and movements and his deductions very often leads one to conclude that his character is inspired by the most famous sleuth in fiction. Indeed, when he deduces that Lean’s wife is pregnant because his shoes aren’t polished one can’t help but think of Sherlock Holmes telling Watson that by an inspection of the groove between latter’s forefinger and thumb, he knew that Watson had not proposed to invest in South African securities. Archie Lean’s character is that of a dedicated officer, a family man who holds his own and does not get overwhelmed under the weight of Grey’s brilliance.
Shields himself admits that the ideas used by Grey were inspired by the works of Austrian professor and judge Hans Gross, who is considered to be one of the founders of criminalistics — for his research on the subject and his 1891 book, “Criminal Investigation”. It was the first work of its kind to be published. Gross went on to publish other important research in the field of criminalistics. He also opened the first criminological institute in the world, at the University of Graz, Austria.
The descriptions of the trials form a critical section of the book, and it gives us a peek into the minds of the early immigrants to the New World: They were still guided by superstitions that resulted in the mass hysteria of the trials. The connection made with George Burroughs, one of the main accused in the actual trial, and the killer in the book, is praiseworthy. So is the author’s description of 19th-century Portland, along with the references to the Civil War.
While the book begins on a promising note, it is unfortunate that the writer somehow loses the pace in the middle of the story and his descriptions drag along. The whole idea of a thriller should be to keep the reader on the edge, but Shields almost fails to hold the attention of the reader, especially while going into the details of the trials. This part, being essential to the story, should have been portrayed in a far more nippy fashion.
However, the author does make up for this deficiency in the later part of the book, where events move at a rapid pace, with new twists and turns every few pages. On the whole, “The Salem Witch Society” is an enjoyable read, but not one which you would want to read over and over again.
The Salem Witch Society
By K. N. Shields,
Sphere, 496 pages, £6.99