Although Spiritualism had been kicking around the fringes of society for a while, it’s no real surprise that in the years after the Civil War ended in 1865 it really started to make inroads to mainstream society. For an era of people who saw death more frequently and more closely than we do now, the slaughter of that war was still staggering.
Things Half in Shadow, by Allen Finn takes place, in that tumultuous time, in Philadelphia. Edward Clark, a Union veteran, is now a crime reporter for one of the city’s largest papers, and because of a knack for sleight of hand and illusions his editor hands him what would seem like a plum assignment; expose the false mediums that prey on the grieving.
Edward doesn’t want the assignment because his knowledge of trickery comes from a fact that he has kept hidden for most of his life; he is the son of a famous magician whom was convicted of killing his wife, Edward’s mother, during a performance.
He takes the job, and the first medium he exposes is Miss Lucy Collins, who is more beautiful than talented. She is also smart, and turns the tables on Edward, blackmailing him with his secrets before he can write his story. Together they decide to finish Edward’s job. Unfortunately, the first séance they attend ends in the murder of a Medium who seemed to actually have supernatural powers. From there Edward and Lucy must untangle the mysterious crime, and others, to clear their names, and save their reputations, and lives.
One of the things that most impressed me by this book was the way that it straddled two genres, horror and mystery. A lot of times that can prove chaotic, but Mr. Finn, with his balanced prose and tight plotting, keeps that from happening. The two main characters, Edward and Lucy are both well drawn, and exceptionally likeable, and the supporting characters, some drawn from real life, are solid as well. The setting and historical backdrop are realistic, but unobtrusive. Mr. Finn really seems to know the details, but he doesn’t show it off.
In case that isn’t enough there is romance, carriage chases, masquerade balls, moon-lit cemeteries, secret societies, hidden tunnels, and tons more. Mr. Finn keeps the whole thing moving, tense and taut, but never spilling over into melodrama. He also reminds the reader how important it was for those in society to keep a good name. Almost as feared as death, a loss of standing was a permanent source of shame, something hard to grasp in these more egalitarian times. It adds an extra level of tension to a story that is already as tight as a tourniquet, and keeps some of the subplots from seeming like digressions.
The last thing that really made this book work for me was that Mr. Finn didn’t give us everything that we wanted. Some things turn out fine, and some don’t, and while many people want their stories wrapped in a pretty bow I applaud Mr. Finn for his stance.