Interview: Alan Finn, author of Things Half in Shadow

alanfinnThings Half in Shadow, the new book by Alan Finn, is addictive. Trust me on this. That said, of course I’m thrilled to welcome Alan to the blog to talk about the book, and more!

Congrats on the new book! Will you tell us a bit about Things Half in Shadow and what inspired you to write it?
Things Half in Shadow is a supernatural historical mystery full of murder, séances and spirits. It’s about a reporter named Edward Clark who gets assigned to expose some of the fake mediums that have descended on Philadelphia in the wake of the Civil War. In the process, Edward encounters Lucy Collins, a fraudulent medium with a checkered past who learns about his checkered past. So they team up, only to be suspected of murder when a very real medium named Lenora Grimes Pastor dies during a séance they attend. To clear their names, they must band together and solve Mrs. Pastor’s murder.

Now, I’ve always been intrigued by séances, Spiritualism and mediums. It’s a subject that fascinates me, and, being the history nerd that I am, I read a lot about it just for kicks. What finally inspired THINGS HALF IN SHADOW was a book from the turn of the century about all the different tricks fake mediums used at the time. Some of them were so brazen and ingenious that I just had to put them in a novel. The rest of the book bloomed from that.

Why do you think readers will root for Edward and Lucy?
On the surface, Edward and Lucy seem like complete opposites. He’s very by-the-book and preoccupied with social standing. She just doesn’t give a damn about any of that. Yet, deep down, they’re very much alike. Both of them have tragic pasts, which have forced them to live under fake identities. Both fear what will happen if their true identities are exposed. Although they start out as adversaries, they eventually form a dynamic partnership. And as for Lucy, I’ve got a feeling readers are going to adore her. After they first hate her, of course. Just like Edward does.

Why 1869 Philadelphia? What fascinates you most about that time period?
Philadelphia is an amazing city. There’s just so much history there, a lot of which gets overshadowed by the city’s justifiably famous role in the American Revolution. As for the time period, that also gets overshadowed a bit. In school, we were taught the Civil War and then World War I, essentially skipping about fifty years of history, even though that time period is so interesting. America had just gone through years of war and upheaval and had to pick up the pieces and learn to be a unified nation again. At the same time, there were major advances in science, medicine and industry. It was a scary, thrilling, dizzying time.

What kind of research did you do for the book, and what was one of the most interesting things you learned?
I went to Philadelphia quite a few times and toured some of the same locations that are included in the book. Places like Eastern State Penitentiary, which is just unbelievably creepy and interesting, and the Fairmount Water Works, the city’s former water plant. I also consulted a lot of books about Spiritualism, Philadelphia history and what everyday life was like in the late 1800s.

Probably the most interesting thing I learned was why the majority of fraudulent mediums were women. At the time, women really had two options—marriage or abject poverty. But being mediums allowed them to earn a living in a way that, back then at least, was generally respectable. Sure, they were charlatans, but Spiritualism was very popular, so polite society overlooked that fact. It was one of the few careers an unmarried or widowed woman could have.

What supporting characters did you enjoy writing the most?
P.T. Barnum plays a pretty sizable role in the book, and it was a blast to research his life and humanize him a bit. He’s known for being this outsized showman, which he was, but there was also a lot about him that was kind and selfless. He was a vocal abolitionist before the Civil War and a debunker of Spiritualism in the years that followed. Plus, in the book, he throws a lavish masked ball, which was just heaven to write about.

You’ve written other mysteries under another name, so this isn’t your first outing. What do you love most about writing, and reading, in the genre?
I love the genre because of its versatility. Mysteries can be cozy or gritty, funny or dark. The mystery genre is a big, warm hug that embraces all kinds of situations and styles. As a writer, it’s a wonderful challenge to dig deep into your characters and see how they react to certain situations. People reveal a lot about themselves when they’re in danger, hiding a secret or trying to clear their name. Also, it’s just a lot of fun trying to fool readers.

What are a few of the biggest influences on your writing?
Being a writer, I know I should rattle off a bunch of other writers who’ve influenced me. But, in the interest of honesty, I have to say that, right now, my biggest influence is television. This really is the Golden Age of serialized TV, with a lot of shows that approach the medium in a novelistic way. Complex characters, complicated relationships, byzantine plots. Shows like “True Detective,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Orphan Black.” They’re really pushing the envelope in terms of storytelling, and they inspire me to try to do the same thing on the page.

Have you read any good books this year? Are there any you’d particularly like to recommend?
I loved Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, which is a great blend of sharply drawn characters, dark comedy and real suspense, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, mostly because the prose is gorgeous. Every sentence in that book is a little marvel.

What’s next for you?
A lot, actually. I’m finishing a follow-up to Things Half in Shadow while doing some preliminary research into what might be my next historical book. I’m also kicking around an idea for a psychological thriller that takes place in current times. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out which one I want to write first.

Keep up with Alan: Website | Twitter

About Things Half in Shadow:
Postbellum America makes for a haunting backdrop in this historical and supernatural tale of moonlit cemeteries, masked balls, cunning mediums, and terrifying secrets waiting to be unearthed by an intrepid crime reporter.

The year is 1869, and the Civil War haunts the city of Philadelphia like a stubborn ghost. Mothers in black continue to mourn their lost sons. Photographs of the dead adorn dim sitting rooms. Maimed and broken men roam the streets. One of those men is Edward Clark, who is still tormented by what he saw during the war. Also constantly in his thoughts is another, more distant tragedy—the murder of his mother at the hands of his father, the famed magician Magellan Holmes…a crime that Edward witnessed when he was only ten.

Now a crime reporter for one of the city’s largest newspapers, Edward is asked to use his knowledge of illusions and visual trickery to expose the influx of mediums that descended on Philadelphia in the wake of the war. His first target is Mrs. Lucy Collins, a young widow who uses old-fashioned sleight of hand to prey on grieving families. Soon, Edward and Lucy become entwined in the murder of Lenora Grimes Pastor, the city’s most highly regarded—and by all accounts, legitimate—medium, who dies mid-séance. With their reputations and livelihoods at risk, Edward and Lucy set out to find the real killer, and in the process unearth a terrifying hive of secrets that reaches well beyond Mrs. Pastor.

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