Publication date: 7th February 2013
Tom-All-Alone’s was one of my favourite books of 2012 so I was really excited to see that Lynn Shepherd’s third novel also featured Charles Maddox, the detective and great-nephew of the ‘great thief-taker’ from Murder at Mansfield Park.
Shepherd’s previous book ended with a man leaving a card for Charles and the elder Maddox being taken ill. When Charles returns the call, he finds that he is visiting Lord Percy, the only remaining child of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary, author of the (in)famous Frankenstein who now, frail and elderly, lives with her son and daughter-in-law.The Shelleys want Charles to stop the publication of some letters which would harm the reputation of the dead poet, something that Lady Jane has spent years working to clean up. The letters belong to Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister and one-time lover of Lord Byron, who is reviled and feared for the potential power she holds over the family.
Accepting what he believes will be a relatively simple commission, Charles once again finds that nothing is what it seems and that there is a lot more to the animosity between the two parties than the Shelleys had let on. Suspecting that his great-uncle knows more about the affair, he trawls through Maddox’s case notes from thirty years before whilst the man himself lies insensible, struck down with an illness that is mystifying the household. As Charles gets drawn further into the lies and intrigue that surround the history of Shelley, Mary and Claire, he discovers that there are many reasons that Maddox was so keen to cover up his part in it…
As with Tom-All-Alone’s, Shepherd’s research is impeccable. The atmosphere that she creates feels authentically chilling and she doesn’t shy away from describing squalor and seediness. The pace doesn’t flag throughout the novel and none of the multiple threads of the story ever feel confused or arbitrary. Despite the numerous narrative voices employed by Shepherd, all feel authentic and they work together to create an engaging whole. I particularly appreciated the introduction of Maddox Sr’s case notes as a way of enabling the use of his voice whilst he is essentially out of action.
Charles is still a great character, naïve and street-smart in equal measure, able to conduct a complex investigation whilst being utterly unaware of what is going on under his nose. I defy anyone to read the novel and not feel an overwhelming urge to shake him several times. Shepherd excels at writing villains, and there are plenty to choose from here, from the unbearable Lady Jane to the twisted Shelleys, each seemingly as bad as the other. There are also genuinely moving moments, especially, as in the previous novel, those involving the fate of infants unfortunate enough to get caught up in the tangled relationships of the adults around them.
The notes at the back give suggestions for further reading and indicate the extent of Shepherd’s research and the love she has for the period. This is turning into a brilliant series and I’m really pleased that Shepherd’s next book will also feature Charles and his investigations.
Thanks to Corsair for sending me a review copy!