A Fatal Likeness by Lynn Shepherd is the second mystery in the historical series about Charles Maddox, a detective in 1850s London (available August 20, 2013).
When the story begins, Charles’ thief-taker great-uncle, who trained him in many of his skills, is bedridden after an apoplexy. This makes it all the more difficult when Charles learns his great-uncle might have ties to the mystery he’s been commissioned to investigate, and that his great-uncle’s attack might have been instigated by related events. As with the series debut The Solitary House (Tom-All-Alone’s in the U.K.), the omniscient narration offers commentary on the characters and plot, which adds to the Victorian-novel feel, though it’s sometimes distracting. Also similar to the previous novel in the series, and adding to the Victorian feel, is that Charles’ seemingly simple investigative task leads to darker and darker revelations.
I enjoyed how Shepherd played with historical events to create unexpected twists and turns in the story, even if ultimately I did not agree with her conclusions. The mystery concerns private papers formerly belonging to Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley which, if real, might be damaging to the family and to the dead poet’s image. Their son, also named Percy, is married to a woman who is heavily invested in her new family and seems even more concerned with guarding that family’s reputation than Sir Percy. The matter of the papers is complicated, Charles is told, by Mary Shelley’s ill-health, which for Charles resonates with his grief for his dying great-uncle.
“And the papers this person claims to have—are they genuine?”
Again that exchange of looks between the two of them. “Could be,” mumbles Sir Percy after a moment. “Hard to tell without seeing ’em.”
“But if they are genuine,” persists Charles, “I do not see that any criminal offence has been committed, and nor do I see how the sale of them can be prevented. The memorabilia of prominent men will always find a ready buyer—”
“Oh as to that,” Lady Shelley sniffs, “we are under no illusions. We are resigned to paying the price, however usurious. Securing Madre’s peace of mind is our only concern.”
“In that case,” says Charles, making ready to stand, “I would advise you hire a lawyer, not a detective. I have no experience in such negotiations, and I do not see how I can assist you.”
…Sir Percy must have caught something in Charles’ tone, because he suddenly lumbers forward in his seat. “Look here, Maddox, I’m going to be honest with you. We’re caught in a cleft stick as far as this rotten affair goes. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. And the poor mater isn’t what she was. Headaches. Fainting. Partial paralysis on occasion. Dreadful business. Had doctor after doctor in to see her, but none of ’em can tell us what the trouble is. Last thing we want is this sordid to-do dragging on like last time, week after week, month after month. We’ll take our medicine and pay the price, but what we need to know first is how much of this stuff there is. Don’t want to buy a bunch of letters and then find there’s more where that lot came from, and we’re back to scratch and yet more to pay. You understand?”
The steadily more byzantine plot makes for a gripping read with echoes of Victorian melodrama appropriate to the style; unfortunately, Shepherd’s incorporation of real historical personages as characters was, for me, taken a bit too far past what I found believable, unless I viewed the story as a sort of thought experiment rather than a historical novel. However, readers looking for a truly surprising outcome to a complex story will find A Fatal Likeness to be just what they’re looking for.
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