Book review: A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd

He was one of England’s great Romantic poets, she was the celebrated creator of Frankenstein, and their illicit love affair scandalised early 19th century society. But did the lives of Percy and Mary Shelley harbour secrets more dangerous and more deadly than we could ever have imagined?

It will take two generations of a fictional detective family to lift the lid on a mystery that has been bubbling below the surface of history for nearly 200 years.

Back to pursue the gaps in our literary heritage is Lynn Shepherd and her daring duo, Charles Maddox senior and Charles Maddox junior, whose thrilling investigations in Murder at Mansfield Park and Tom-All-Alone’s brought their author fame and acclaim.

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A Treacherous Likeness is the third outing for the Victorian Maddoxes whose cerebral sleuthing has already solved mysteries inspired by the great Jane Austen and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.

In her latest foray into the classics, Shepherd exploits the treachery, turbulence and tragedy that dogged the lives of the Shelleys, the notorious poet Lord Byron and those unfortunates whose fates become bound up with these flawed geniuses.

It’s a tale of passion told with passion – a shocking story of cruelty, unrequited love, betrayal, cover-up, abandonment (in every sense of the word) and premature death.

Shepherd’s complex but compelling crime puzzle weaves between the dying days of 1850 and the early years of that century to unravel secrets from the past and offer a dark, new and excitingly authentic version of a literary enigma.

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As always, Shepherd undertakes the task with style, harnessing the facts, taking some very credible liberties, adding atmosphere and colour, and turning an old mystery into something refreshingly readable.

While Charles Maddox, once one of London’s greatest ‘thief-takers,’ lies semi-conscious, ravaged by age and mental incapacity, his great-nephew and namesake, and also a detective, reluctantly takes on a new case.

His clients are the ineffectual Sir Percy Florence Shelley, only surviving son of the famous Shelleys, and Lady Jane Shelley, his brusque, haughty wife who has turned their home into a shrine to the long-dead poet.

The widowed Mary Shelley, now very much a recluse, is being blackmailed over lost ‘letters’, claim her son and daughter-in-law, and young Charles’ job will be to find whether the missing, and probably incriminating, memoirs really do exist.

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When Charles tracks down Mary Shelley’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, a former lover of Lord Byron and a leading player in the Shelleys’ misadventures during their travels abroad, he soon finds himself being drawn into the bitter battle being waged over the poet’s literary legacy.

And as he learns more about the scheming, single-minded Mary Shelley and her ruthlessly ambitious father, political journalist and philosopher William Godwin, Charles makes a chance discovery that raises new doubts about the death of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook. Did young Harriet kill herself, or was her death far more sinister than suicide?

The tangled web of the past continues to yield up more disturbing secrets and Charles faces the shattering possibility that his own great-uncle is implicated in a conspiracy to conceal terrible truths...

With an inherently charismatic cast and an all-seeing narrator to provide 21st century rationale, possessing an extensive knowledge of literature and the Romantics is not essential to enjoy and appreciate this beautifully executed novel.

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A Treacherous Likeness is undeniably a new spin on an old story but it is also intelligent, revealing and exciting in the sheer power of its possibility.

Immaculately researched, gripping and often unsettling, this is the kind of storytelling to set the grey matter in motion, help us reflect on the nature of genius and question the veracity of literary legacies.

We might even feel encouraged to consider that maybe, just maybe, Lord Byron was not the only member of that ‘dazzling but doomed’ generation who was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’

(Corsair, hardback, £17.99)

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