New Maine Times Book Review: 'A Study in Revenge'

Posted Wednesday, April 17, 2013 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: 'A Study in Revenge'
by Kieran Shields
Crown, 2013
369 pages, $25
ISBN 978-0-307-98576-7

reviewed by William D. Bushnell

While Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are skulking around London’s foggy streets in 1893, Portland’s two Holmesian-style detectives, Archie Lean and Perceval Grey, are solving crimes and battling arch-villains from Munjoy Hill to the Old Port.
"A Study in Revenge" is Bath author Kieran Shields’ excellent second historical mystery, following "The Truth of All Things" (Crown, 2012), which introduced Lean and Grey as worthy parallels to Holmes and Watson.
This elaborate story offers a complicated Holmesian-style mystery, complete with murder, mayhem, intricate coded messages, mysticism, the occult, buried treasure, ancient alchemy, Portland city history, its gritty criminal underworld, gumshoe police investigative techniques, and a delightful selection of fascinating thugs, thieves, and charlatans.  Clues, obscure and obvious, abound in this thriller, so the reader will have to remain alert and discerning as multiple plots unfold to an explosive conclusion.
Archie Lean is a Portland police detective investigating the odd discovery of a charred corpse in an abandoned house. The victim is a well-known career criminal, Frankie the Foot, but Lean is more puzzled by the fact that Frankie had been murdered and buried two days earlier. What then is his burned body doing tied to a chair in an old house two days later?  And the crime scene is littered with sooty, cryptic symbols and pictograms – all clues certainly, but clues to what?
Lean asks for help from his close friend Perceval Grey, a clever and respected private detective and criminologist (think Holmes) who is also half Abenaki Indian. The two men make a good investigative team, but even their combined efforts cannot figure out this grisly mystery. Lean knows Portland’s criminal element well, and he is quite surprised to find that even the toughest crooks are too scared to even talk about Frankie the Foot. They are afraid of something much more dangerous than the police. Lean’s fists and threats produce little result.
Meanwhile, Grey is hired by the wealthy Webster family to recover a stolen family artifact and locate a missing sister, and at first the cases seem unconnected. Oddly, the family seems more interested in finding the stolen artifact than in finding the missing sister, a twist that intrigues Grey’s sense of adventure and curiosity.
Before long, however, Lean’s and Grey’s cases begin to merge, causing the two detectives to follow numerous clues, most of them deliberate misdirection, not realizing they are being manipulated by two conspiracies, one led by a diabolical master criminal and the other by someone with crazed revenge as a motive. And Lean and Grey are suddenly in grave danger from two directions.
Their determined inquires take them to Boston and the top of Mount Katahdin, with murder following on a train and a mountaintop, and other shootings, fights, captures, escapes, and pursuits adding continuous action and excitement to this well-crafted mystery. Add Grey’s cerebral, scientific investigative methods, Lean’s more street-wise, physical methods, the smart, subtle, and very deadly games played by the villains, and frequent references to an old case (in the first book), and Shields has a sure mystery hit.
The conclusion is both surprising and warmly satisfying, and leaves no doubt that there will be a sequel. Holmes and Watson would be pleased.
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