Lynn Shepherd – A Fatal Likeness
Read my review of book:
2. The Solitary House
Length: 364 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Started: 07 November 2013
Finished: 13 November 2013
Where did it come from? Library Thing Early Reviewers.
Why do I have it? I really enjoyed the book of Shepherd’s that I’d read previously, and was in the mood for some historical fiction.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 12 July 2013.
is not just his poems, but his
strange family, too.
Summary: Charles Maddox is the nephew of London’s greatest thief taker, and quite an excellent investigator in his own right. He’s currently preoccupied with his uncle’s deteriorating health and mental faculties, but that doesn’t stop him from taking on new business when it comes to him. He is contacted by the only surviving son of the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the author Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley. The son, Sir Percy, wants Maddox to investigate someone who is said to be in possession of papers that may be damaging to the family’s legacy, which Mary, her son, and her daughter-in-law protect vigilantly. But when Maddox takes the case, he finds the person in question is Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, and her stories and vitriolic attitude towards Mary open up even more questions. Who was Shelley really, and what accounts for his widely noted eccentric behavior? What happened in the death of his first wife? What was really going on while Shelley, Mary, and Claire were traveling in Europe? And – perhaps most interestingly to Charles – what does his uncle have to do with the whole affair?
Review: The life and times of the romantic poets – particularly the tangled family tree of the Shelleys and the Godwins and Claire Clairmont and Lord Byron – are complicated and strange by all accounts, with gaps in our knowledge and unanswered questions and unexplainable events. A Fatal Likeness is the second book I’ve read in the past year that uses some artistic license to fill in those gaps while still staying as true as possible to the known facts. (The other is The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers, and while the solutions to the mysteries of history offered by Shepherd are undeniably more plausible than Powers’s vampiric stony lamia spirits, the supernatural explanations lingered in my mind as I read Shepherd’s more down-to-earth account, perhaps as I was trying to make them fit together.) I should also add that, prior to these books, I was not at all familiar with this bit of literary history, or even with the literary works of the people involved. So how well Shepherd did at playing with actual history, I can’t answer.
What I can speak to is the story that she herself presents. And I think she presents it well, although I didn’t find it as smooth or as enjoyable as her previous novel, The Solitary House. As far as the mystery goes, the various pieces are laid out well, doled out in appropriate chunks, and presented in such a way that someone (like myself) who only has the barest knowledge of the actual facts could follow along. (The family tree in the front of the book was a huge help that I had to flip to frequently, although I could also have used a timeline as to when some of the major events in Shelley/Mary/Claire’s lives took place.) The solution to many of the mysteries laid out in the book (particularly centering around Shelley’s strange behavior), however, didn’t quite work so well. It was interesting, and fit with the facts of the story, but it came rather abruptly near the end, and wasn’t (in my opinion) figure-out-able from clues in the rest of the book, which is not how I prefer my mystery novels.
But the bigger reason that I didn’t love this book is that I disliked almost all of the characters, and didn’t get enough of the characters I did enjoy. There’s some development for Charles, and I’m curious to see where Shepherd will take his character in the future, and it was fascinating to get to see things from the perspective of his uncle (via old case files). But it felt like most of the time was spent with the Shelleys or Claire Clairmont (or both), and I found almost everyone involved to be thoroughly unpleasant and unlikeable. Again, that may or may not be true to the historical record, I can’t say, but it made it difficult to get involved with the progress of the mystery. It seemed like we, the audience, were supposed to want to get to the bottom of the strange and terrible things that had happened in the previous generation, but after a while, I was of the opinion that all of these awful people deserved each other, and can we please go spend some more time with Charles and his household, or roaming around Victorian London (which is a great thing about Shepherd’s books, she can write atmospheric and vaguely Gothic Victoriana like nobody’s business.)
So, overall, it wasn’t the best historical mystery I’ve ever read, but it was well-written and interesting enough to keep me absorbed, and I’ll be curious to see what literary inspiration strikes Shepherd next. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: People interested in the Romantic poets would be my first recommendation, obviously, but fans of historical mysteries, particularly those with a literary bent, should enjoy it (and/or The Solitary House) as well.
First Line: We began before thick in autumn fog; we open now in the fury of a west and winter wind.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 94: “But that’s an answer that leaves Charles all the more contemptuous of Lady Shelley and her husband, for even if Claire and Mary were not sisters in the literal sense of the term, it’s the most mean-spirited of casuistries to deny any ‘relation’ between them at all.” – Specious or excessively subtle reasoning intended to rationalize or mislead.
- p. 183: ““Well,” sniffed the woman, folding her arms, and looking up and down at my fine marcella waistcoat.” – a white cotton material used for evening shirts and waistcoats.
- p. 184: “And if her figure did indeed incline to enbonpoint, her face was gaunt and her skin dull.” – Plumpness, stoutness, especially when voluptuous.
- p. 203: “I could have sent one of my men, it is true, but knowing the parlous state of Godwin’s pocket-book I deemed it prudent to deliver it in person.” – Perilous; dangerous.
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