Book review: The Pierced Heart by Lynn Shepherd
When Victorian private detective Charles Maddox is on the case, it’s always best to expect the unexpected.
Maddox, the inspired creation of acclaimed author Lynn Shepherd, operates on the edge of an extraordinary brand of literary darkness, solving mysteries amongst people and locations familiar to readers of the classics.
After forays into the domains of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Mary Shelley, Shepherd steps fearlessly into the spine-tingling shadow of Bram Stoker’s Dracula as Maddox takes on a terrifying enemy in the freezing wilds of rural Austria.
His journey into death, dangerous science and shocking secrets is as thrilling as it chilling, exposing a mid-Victorian society suspended between the power of age-old superstitions and the excitement of new ideas and discoveries.
The influences of spiritualism, séances and quasi-scientific exploration are a powerful presence in this atmospheric story which builds to a heart-thumping climax worthy of any Gothic horror film.
When Austrian aristocrat Baron Von Reisenberg offers an ‘alarmingly large’ donation to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, the wary custodians call on Charles Maddox to check out the generous benefactor.
It appears at first to be a fairly mundane inquiry for the increasingly renowned criminal investigator but Maddox welcomes the chance to leave London and his unhappy memories for the comforts of a castle in the Viennese countryside.
Comfort, however, is in short supply at creepy Castle Reisenberg and his host, a man with extraordinarily pale eyes, alabaster white skin and cold fingers ‘as wan as a corpse,’ is the subject of frightened whispers and macabre legends.
Maddox is far too rational to entertain supernatural beliefs but the dank halls, secret rooms and unsettling atmosphere of the castle begin to fill his sleep with nightmares. In the cold light of day, however, the veteran detective can find no evidence of anything sinister and no fault with the baron’s impeccable manners.
All changes when a series of disturbing incidents thrust him into a harrowing quest to expose whatever evil lurks behind the locked doors of the baron’s ancestral home and after a terrifying encounter that nearly costs him his sanity, Maddox is forced to return home.
With the horror he has unearthed fresh in his mind, Maddox discovers London is teeming with visitors to the Great Exhibition and on the verge of widespread panic because a ruthless killer branded the Vampire is murdering and butchering women.
Maddox has little doubt about who is responsible but grows increasingly unsure about whether his enemy is a mere mortal… or something far more terrifying.
Shepherd has become a mistress of literary conceit, nodding her head at the classics but conjuring up her own magic with tantalising tales that revisit well-trodden themes and territories but bravely venture down extravagant and fanciful new avenues.
Here she uses the eccentric work of real-life German scientist Baron Karl von Reichenbach as the starting point for a fascinating novel steeped in murder, barbarism and the grotesque.
Driven by her imagination, research and an impressive grasp of both literature and history, Shepherd juxtaposes 19th century notions of madness with the innovative, rational vision of the Great Exhibition.
Vampires, the souls of ‘the Undead’ and other Gothic horrors jostle with the earth-bound angst of Maddox, himself an archetypal lost soul haunted by the disappearance of his sister, his failed police career and his beloved great-uncle’s failing health.
Caught up in a web of murder and mystery, Maddox must separate reality from the paranormal, truth from lies and the past from the present, whilst all the time endeavouring to solve a crime that threatens some of the London’s most vulnerable women.
The Pierced Heart is a clever and seductive pastiche of genres – horror, mystery, history and crime – the author mercilessly toying with our expectations as the plot gains momentum and builds to an electrifying and stunning dénouement.
A stylish and gripping Gothic revival…
(Delacorte Press, hardback, £16.01)