Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Things Half in Shadow.
Finn fully establishes his talent for writing Victorian gothic, tunneling into the past of his first-person protagonist, Edward Clark. Plunged into a environment of spiritualism in Philadelphia in 1869, Edward is faced with a world he cannot hope to understand. On the waterfront of the Delaware river one foggy morning, a woman is found dead but nonetheless fully intact. Called to the scene is Edward, who is working as a newspaper reporter for the
Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.
Initially there’s nothing suspicious about the girl’s death,
although Edward’s best friend, Inspector William Barclay, notices that the body exhibits none of the telltale signs of drowning. The girl probably lived in Fishtown, a ramshackle and broken-down part of the
city just a few blocks from the waterfront. William wants Edward to place a description of the girl in the
Evening Bulletin in order to help find out who she is.
The ghosts of the Civil War are still fresh in Edward’s mind as he returns to the offices of
The Bulletin fully intending the write about the dead girl. However, he is instructed by his editor to seek out and expose Philadelphia’s fraudulent mediums. The
city teems with these dubious spiritual guides, most of whom prey on the widespread loss from the War. Stemming the collective wound in the population‘s psyche, mediums have been bringing with them all sorts of illusions that fool the gullible and the grieving: the spirit cabinets, apparitions, and mesmerized tables that seem to float in midair.
As the identity of the girl from Fishtown becomes a perilous afterthought, Finn imbues his post-Antebellum murder mystery with near mystical qualities. Edward stops at the home of the unflappable Mrs. Lucy Collins. As she begins to conjure her spirit guide, various objects circle the room as though animated by vibration. Edward ends up exposing the feisty medium as nothing but an unrepentant fraud and threatens her for engaging in chicanery and the simple illusions that many in Philadelphia presume to be real.
The book’s twists and turns are pretty expected: Edward becomes embroiled in a netherworld of spirits, both real and fake; Lucy threatens to expose his true identity; and the underground Philadelphia spiritual community holds Edward perpetually
in their spell. Settling on a ceasefire, Edward and Lucy attend a séance of Mrs. Lenora Grimes Paster, a medium of formidable reputation who looms large and has an ardent devotion of ready admirers. Leonora swears she’s directly connected to “the Great Beyond.” Even trances and voices that emerge from Leonora’s mouth speak truths that can’t possibly be known.
Things go terribly wrong, and neither Edward nor Lucy nor the other attendees (including the famous P.T. Barnum), are prepared for the depth of Leonora’s realizations, the form her powers take, and the strange and unexpected voice of a woman called Annalise Holmes. Torn between emotions, Edward wants to believe the tragic events of the night are just the work of a skilled charlatan. The stress divides him and Lucy when both are pinned for murder. Because of Lucy’s past deeds, she is the one who emerges as the prime suspect.
With Edward’s past pulling around his wrists and ankles “like invisible ropes” along with the pressure from his fiancé, poor Violet Willoughby, to marry him at every turn, Edward races across the city, desperate to clear his name. All the while he’s becoming more attracted to Lucy. Danger also lurks in the form of a strange, pale man with no nose and a dark-eyed gaze who continues to terrorize Edward through the gas-lit streets, causing fear to rise in him “like the morning mist on an open field.”
Although the last third of the novel rambles a bit, Finn writes in the gasping, energetic fashion of a kind and honorable man on the run
treading on the murky ground of the spirits of the dead. Imbuing his tale with an aura of doom, the author reminds us that polite society is merely a veneer, a foil for the twisted, evil cravings of malevolent spirits.