A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd

I thought I’d take a break from my Best of 2012 series to write about a book I’ve just finished and am sure will feature in my best books of 2013 – keep an eye out for it in February!

A Treacherous Likeness is the follow up (though not strictly a sequel) to Tom-All-Alone’s (published in the US as The Solitary House – it is listed on GoodReads under that title), and also stars detective Charles Maddox. You can read my thoughts on Tom-All-Alone’s here.

2012 proof

A Treacherous Likeness was recommended to me by the lovely Emily from Corsair and I jumped at the chance to read it. Charles Maddox is called to the home of Percy and Jane Shelley; Percy is the only surviving child of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, legendary author of Frankenstein. Jane Shelley informs Charles that they suspect someone is trying to sell some papers that could tarnish Percy Bysshe Shelley’s reputation. With Mary elderly and in ill health, daughter-in-law Jane has taken in upon herself to protect the Shelley name and legend, dominating the house, maintaining the Percy Bysshe shrine in the living room, and referring to Mary as ‘Madre’. Percy’s reluctance – or inability – to take charge of his parents’ affairs is intriguing, as is Jane’s utter devotion not only to Mary but also to Shelley, whom she has never even met.

This wild devotion to him sets a precedent for women’s feelings towards the poet that continues throughout Charles’ investigations and the rest of the novel.

Prospective 2013 cover from constablerobinson.com

When Percy Shelley’s card is left at Charles’ house asking for a meeting, his great uncle Maddox has some sort of attack that seems like a stroke, seemingly as a result of the shock and alarm at seeing the name ‘Shelley’ – again. After Charles’ meeting with Percy and Jane, he delves into his great uncle’s papers (with Maddox too ill to answer questions) and discovers even more secrets and mysteries surrounding the Shelleys and Maddox’s connection to them, particularly Mary and Percy Bysshe. What unfolds – slowly and elaborately – before Charles is a series of cover-ups and lies, mixed with intense emotions and fears. Within Maddox’s papers and the events Charles uncovers from his uncle’s dealings with the Shelleys thirty years earlier, every scandal of Shelley’s life in examined, from his failed early marriage to Harriet Westbrook and her later suicide, to his turbulent relationship with Mary, as well as with her stepsister Claire – and more than one lost child.

Lynn Shepherd. Image: lynn-shepherd.com

Fans of Shepherd will recognise themes here from Tom-All-Alone’s – the hidden truths, the tangled family histories, the cover-ups, and very sadly, the lost children whose lives were cut short. The tragedies of these children’s deaths are no less upsetting that those in Tom-All-Alone’s, and Shepherd is an expert in tugging our heartstrings with subtle and carefully crafted phrases and images that say more than they seem to at first.

The only thing I wasn’t sure about was the narrative voice. At times it is very cinematic and works excellently to set the scene and establish some dramatic irony; but at other times it keeps mentioning our 21st century perspective in a way that sort of detracts from the Victorian setting and the intensity of what we are reading about. Also it refers to itself as ‘I’, which I found confusing – is is another character we’ll meet later? Is Shepherd the narrator in a meta-fiction way? Not sure. Other than that, it worked.

I could write a lot more about this very rich and intense novel. For now I will just say that it is excellent and is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the Romantic poets (don’t worry, Byron makes an appearance too), or in fact anyone who loves a good mystery. Shepherd is currently working on her next novel, also featuring Charles Maddox, and I for one cannot wait to read it.

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A Treacherous Likeness will be published in February 2013 by Corsair, an imprint of Constable & Robinson. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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