Anyone who knows me (in my capacity as a writer, anyway) will tell you that when it comes to historical fiction I am a traditionalist: I don’t want my historical figures and facts mixed up with zombies, werewolves, or ghosts (maybe I’ll make an exception for ghosts… maybe). So it was with a bit of skepticism that I picked up D.B. Jackson’s The Thieftaker. My interest was piqued by the fact that the novel is set in Boston, a lovely city and my current hometown, and because it is also a murder mystery, a genre that is my guilty pleasure.
The story, set in 1767, centers around the exploits of Ethan Kaille, a British-born former sailor and privateer who had been sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor on a plantation in Barbados for participating in a mutiny. Arriving in Boston when his ordeal is over, physically scarred but with spirit unbroken, Kaille tries to put his life back together while earning a living as a thieftaker – a bounty hunter who recovers stolen goods for wealthy clients. When he is hired to track down the brooch stolen from the body of Jennifer Berson, a daughter of a prominent Boston merchant family, he is drawn into a pursuit of a powerful and elusive murderer.
Why does Kaille, who swore never again to become involved in acts of violence, agree to do it? It turns out that he is endowed with a gift (inherited form his mother) for casting spells that allow him to access the help of the spiritual world in a way that most other mortals cannot. In other words, he is a witch. And he discovers that Jennifer’s killer is also a conjurer. What ensues is a battle of wits and magic that once again tests the limits of Kaille’s physical endurance. He must catch the killer or risk seeing an innocent man hang, which may lead the already volatile political situation in Boston to explode like a powder keg.
D.B. Jackson is known as a writer of urban fantasy, so it is understandable that he chose to include magic when he switched to historical fiction for his new series. Fantastical elements are not something I enjoy in general fiction, and they did not work particularly well for me in this story, either. However, Jackson does a great job bringing pre-revolutionary Boston to life with its lawlessness and tense political climate. Also, the narrative – except for the scene of Kaille’s confrontation with the killer, in which the magic spells flying back and forth between the two adversaries were often confusing – was solidly structured and engaging. But that climactic scene, which is supposed to be the culmination and resolution of the story was not only muddled up by the spells but also too long, reminding me of the analogical scene in Stephen King’s Bag of Bones. That scene, too, was long-winded and went in circles, and it made me wish it was over already. It is not a sentiment any author wants to invoke in his or her readers.
Even if the historical fiction purist in me did not buy the spell casting, and the murder mystery fan found magic to be a facile way to solve sticky plot points, I am sure The Thieftaker will appeal to fantasy lovers, especially if they also enjoy well-drawn historical settings.