I was initially riveted by Shields’ historical thriller with its colorful depictions of 1892 Portland, Maine, where the warehouses, cobbled streets and opium dens contribute to a rarefied atmosphere of a city under siege. While Mayor Ingram attempts to find a political niche in the elites of polite society, Deputy Marshal Archie Dean is called to Portland Company’s cavernous machine shop to investigate the body of Maggie Keen, a local prostitute found savagely murdered.
Going down a road that would have robbed her of any final traces of hope and innocence, poor Maggie
has been found with two prongs of a pitchfork run straight through her neck. Only a series of chalk letters surrounding her body
might offer up any hope of finding her murderer. Firing broadsides against the Mayor, Colonel Ambrose Blanchard of the Maine Temperance Union wants his men to scour the docks and alleys of the
city to dredge up whatever drunks and vagrants they can.
With City officials rushing to judgment and Blanchard of the opinion that it’s “one less whore corrupting our streets,” Dean summons part-red Indian criminalist, the brilliant Perceval Grey. Dean sees Grey’s astute investigative talents and his ability to speak the native tongue--the language of the Abenaki tribes of Maine--as the perfect antidote to the pig-headed biases of Ingram and Blanchard. Plunged into a compelling puzzle, Grey and Dean turn their attention to finding a first victim, while Grey is quick to point out that nothing can be proved.
From the outset, the case is swamped by important clues and troubling developments. Dean watches perplexed while Grey pauses to examine the evidence in slow and careful detail. A man who has spent six years in Europe studying under the greatest of criminologists, Grey has many of the characteristics of self-made man.
Far from interested in his own advancement, he is always pleasant and diligent and appears to be fascinated by every aspect of the case.
As Grey’s investigation unfolds in a jumbled and violent web of murder, the witch hunts of Salem and the Indian spiritual wars vie for prominence with séances and assignations of black magic. The discovery of more murdered girls and an aging whore who knows more than she’s letting on add atmospheric chill.
A book with its origins dating back to the 1700s delivered to Grey by the lovely assistant researcher Helen Prescott jumpstarts a race into the dark, narrow streets of Portland, where the cobblestones eventually give way to dank earth. From the doss-houses of Portland’s underbelly to the salubrious houses of the rich and privileged, a thread of history winds itself through hearts and lives, proving to be a slippery slope for an unsound mind.
I really wanted to like this novel more than I did. Shields’ penchant for stuffing his plot with too many historical twists and turns dilutes the urgency of the narrative and the action,
while the plot flits from street to street, soon turning into an indistinct morass. Certainly the history of the Salem witch trials is over-explored. The Truth of All Things eventually flounders a little, meandering down a path strewn with too many eerie cowlings, foggy nights, frightened souls, and lurid stories of the past that eventually dead-end into the depressing and debilitating corner of crushed and broken dreams.
Shields' labyrinthine style of telling stories within stories while connecting to different time periods begins to get cumbersome after the reader figures out where the actual plot is going. The characters are interesting and the novel has all the components for a great historical thriller told on dramatic turf--the misty graveyard, the wintry city, the plight of the Indians, the Temperance Union, and three undernourished prostitutes--yet the overall effect of the novel
is heavy-handed. When the climatic scenes are finally reached, the mystery is no longer shrouded in secret.