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Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Truth of All Things by Kieran Shields

Crown Publishers, 416 pages, $25 (c2012)
Broadway Books, 416 pages, $15 (c2013)

This is one of the things I miss the most about working in a bookstore: finding a treasure by accident while tidying. Cover art or a compelling color would pull me into looking closer at a book by an unknown author. An ear-catching title would also work. “The Truth of All Things” came across my wandering fingers while I was waiting for someone at the fabulous Multnomah County Library in Portland (Oregon). I had never heard of the book or the author, but the art and color on the cover drew me, and I, who have gadzillions of unread books at home, took a chance.

Set in Portland, Maine, in 1892, “The Truth of All Things” tells the story of when science crosses swords with superstition in catching a serial killer. After an initial wrinkling of the brow, Deputy Marshal Archie Lean is strangely accepting when former Pinkerton agent Perceval Grey is forced upon him by pathologist Dr. Virgil Steig to solve the murder of a prostitute. But what a fortuitous pairing they prove to be. Lean is a more active Watson to Grey’s phlegmatic Sherlock. Added to the mix is Steig’s niece, librarian Helen Prescott, and her young daughter. (Cue “The A-Team” theme.)

The team discovers that the prostitute is not the first of the killer’s victims, and probably is destined not to be the last. Using the strange signs and words at the death site, the team begins to track a supernatural connection. Using cohorts from both sides of the legal track, the team traces and interviews an odd collection of potential eyewitnesses.

Kieran Shields does a bang-up job of providing a clear look at Portland and its society at the time. His team uses cutting-edge forensics and old-fashioned thinking and footwork to track down the killer and determine why he or she is killing. There were a few slow points in this 400-page book, but they were never dull. Once everyone settled into his or her role, the narrative moved along.

Shields wrote one more Lean/Grey book, “A Study in Revenge.” Sadly, according to Shields, his publisher declined to publish any more in the series. This debut was marvelous and the potential for a long-term series was good. I’m sorry for our loss.

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