A Study in Revenge by Kieran Shields is the second in the historical mystery series set in 19th century New England and featuring police detective Archie Lean and his partner Perceval Grey (available January 8, 2013).
In the summer of 1893, a thief named Cosgrove is shot while delivering a stolen artifact in Portland, Maine. Days after the thief’s burial, police detective Archie Lean investigates when the man’s body turns up again, badly scorched, in an abandoned house. The scene has been staged to give the appearance that Cosgrove somehow rose from the dead, entered the house on his own, all while on fire. Occult symbols and messages appear near the crime.
Perplexed as to why anyone would stage such an elaborate hoax, Lean summons his erstwhile partner, Perceval Grey, a brilliant former Pinkerton detective who happens to be half Native American. What comes next is a breathless chase, from the dark streets of Portland to the provincial drawing rooms of Boston, for the thunderstone, a mysterious, centuries-old relic that wields cryptic yet potentially incredible power.
A Study in Revenge is the first novel I’ve read by Kieran Shields; it’s the second in a series set in 1890s Portland, Maine, and featuring straightforward Deputy Marshal Archie Lean and brilliant, eccentric private detective Perceval Grey. Shields thoughtfully provides backstory for the first book in the series early on, so you won’t miss anything by starting with this one.
I love mysteries with historical settings, and this one does a great job of establishing how it might feel to live in New England and watch the 20th century rapidly approaching.
The other thing that, to me, lent flavor to the setting is the hint of Holmes and Watson in the characters of Grey and Lean and the way they interact. Grey was my favorite thing about this book—he’s half-English, half-Abenaki Indian, a former Pinkerton detective, financially well-off and raised as a gentleman, in contrast to most of the police force we are shown. Grey uses some cutting-edge (for the period) forensic techniques along with his powerful intellect to solve bizarre crimes.
Perceval Grey is intriguing from his first mention. It’s clear he stands outside of the ordinary run of society, and engenders conflict with policemen other than Lean, both because of his personality and because he is not officially affiliated with the law.
…“Not this one.” Harrington’s raspy voice was suddenly thick with disapproval. He sounded like a man readying himself for a confrontation. “Such a high-talking windbag.”
Lean knew that Grey’s work was earning him a reputation around the city, one not fully appreciated by the other members of the police department. “It’s all right. He’s here at my request”—Lean fished about for the right way to justify calling on a private detective during a police investigation—“as a sort of expert on . . . unusual matters.”
The look in Harrington’s eyes still bordered on hostility, so Lean suggested the man take a stroll past the onlookers down the alley, to see if anyone had had a change of heart and now wanted to offer up something useful.
It’s not all about Grey, however. Each of the men has something to contribute to the mystery that they’re attempting to solve. The partnership between Lean and Grey seems both efficient and fond, and has a lot of humor; they feel free to gently tease each other, and if they don’t already consider themselves friends in this book, it’s clear that friendship will happen eventually.
“Each one of my observations has been obvious. No inference I’ve drawn from the scene has been surprising. You didn’t need me to come here and tell you that all of this is a false design, some kind of hoax. So what is it that you’re not telling me, Lean?”
The deputy feigned insult. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that, based on our past dealings, I’ve come to expect that you have an opinion on this. Furthermore, you usually find it difficult not to share your opinions. Which leads me to believe that you must have an ulterior motive for standing there so quietly.”
“Well, I know how you like to form an unbiased opinion of a crime scene, without the rest of us ruining the canvas with our foolish observations and—what do you call them?—preconceived notions.” Lean allowed himself a smile. Though he knew it was a touch immature and unprofessional, there was an undeniable bit of delight in knowing some elusive fact that Perceval Grey was only able to guess at.
The mystery itself is convoluted, with a number of unexpected twists that provide a showcase for Grey’s abilities and kept me guessing. It was the characters, however, who kept me reading and enjoying the novel.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War I-set Spice Brief, “Under Her Uniform”, is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.
Read all posts by Victoria Janssen for Criminal Element.