If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and would love to see that type of late Victorian mystery played out in a different setting with a range of intriguing New England characters, then The Salem Witch Society might be just what you’re looking for. Written by KN Shields it stars the slightly Holmesian character Perceval Grey – an extremely clever man who is half Native American but refuses to be pigeon-holed. The book is set in a vividly described Portland, Maine, and also weaves in a dark underpinning of witchcraft linking back to the infamous Salem trials of the late 17th century. It’s the law graduate’s first crime novel, so for New Talent November we invited him to sit in Crime Fiction Lover’s big, comfy interview chair to share his thoughts on the book and his new career as a crime author…
Hello! What can crime fiction lovers expect from The Salem Witch Society?
In this book, police inspector Archie Lean is faced with a bizarre occult murder. Out of desperation, he recruits Perceval Grey, a brilliant half Native American criminalist, and Helen Prescott, a surprisingly intrepid historian. Together, the three form an often conflicted and sometimes humorous team. It’s my hope that readers discover a sharp, eerie mystery that keeps them guessing, a unique historical setting with a fresh take on the events of the Salem witch trials, and a trio of engaging characters they look forward to seeing again.
Grey is a fascinating character. There’s more than a touch of the Sherlock Holmes influence here and he’s more old school Conan Doyle than the Robert Downy Jr rendition. But he’s also half Native American. How did you put this fellow together?
While I very much enjoy Robert Downey Jr’s work, I have to say I’m an even bigger fan of Conan Doyle. This story was originally intended to present Grey as an enigmatic, unknowable personality. As the writing went on, ideas about Grey’s peculiar family background – being a half Native American forcibly integrated into wealthy white society as a child – and the resulting strains on his personality and outlook on the world forced their way to the surface. Unlike Holmes, who is very much a part of the society he protects, Grey retains strong elements of a social outsider, both by choice and by the often racist preconceptions that others place upon him.
What attracted you to the idea of combining the folklore and actual history of witchcraft in New England, with a murder mystery?
This specific idea came about in the course of research for a separate, still unpublished novel, set in 17th century New England. I became aware of certain historical connections between my home town and some of the people involved in the infamous Salem witch trials. I wanted to write a mystery with dark, occult overtones, and since Salem conjures up the appropriately macabre images, it seemed a natural fit to tie in a murder mystery with some of the less well known aspects of those witch trials.
You live in Portland, Maine where the book is set. I bet most readers don’t know much about the place. What makes 19th century Portland an interesting setting?
Set on a peninsula in the far northeast of the US, Portland in this period has a gritty, yet cosmopolitan, maritime charm. Its traumatic history includes being wiped off the map four times, once at the hands of Royal Navy vessels in 1775. A massive fire in 1866 caused the city center to be rebuilt in a unified, mostly brick, architectural style which still gives the city a bit of a Victrorian Gothic feel. The idea of rising from the ashes of past traumas with a new identity that hides, but doesn’t truly erase, the old scars is a theme the city itself shares with the characters, both good and evil, in the book.
It’s quite a hefty piece for a crime fiction debut. What was your secret to getting it finished?
I had a firmly held belief – entirely unsupported by any objective evidence – that I was writing something people would find as intriguing and entertaining as I did. And my true secret weapon was a desperate desire to escape the tedium of my old office cubicle.
What can we expect from you in future?
The sequel, The Devil’s Revenge, should be out from Sphere, in ebook format, in the same time frame as The Salem Witch Society, with copies to hit shelves some months down the road. After that, if all goes according to my own diabolical plans, more books featuring this trio of investigators and some other, distinct novels will be on the horizon.
The Salem Witch Society arrives on Kindle and as a paperback on 3 January.