Tuesday, July 02, 2013

A Fatal Likeness by Lynn Shepherd

source: review copy
A Fatal Likeness by Lynn Shepherd
UK title: A Treacherous Likeness
series: Charles Maddox (3)
forthcoming: August 20, 2013

In the third installment of her literary mystery series featuring thief-taker1 Charles Maddox,2 Shepherd seeks to fill the "inexplicable gaps and strange silences" (8) in the biographical record of the Young Romantics. The action of the novel begins when Charles Maddox is summoned to Sir Percy Shelley (son of Percy Bysshe and Mary) and asked to spy on someone claiming to have some of the famous poet's private papers for sale. The more Maddox learns about the assignment and his clients, the more complicated things begin to seem and the less altruistic their decision to employ him.

In her post-epigraph author's note and the back matter section entitled "Author's Notes and Acknowledgments" Shepherd makes clear that while A Fatal Likeness is fictional, it is based on facts and contemporary accounts. Apparently the author made every attempt to stay true to the various historical personages (primarily the Shelleys, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley's stepsister Claire Clairmont) and for her suppositions to be plausible based on the evidence that is in the historical record.   In the back matter Shepherd also explains the reasoning behind her decision to attribute certain actions to certain characters or explain a mystery in a certain way. 

While I don't think it is strictly necessary to read the other Charles Maddox books in order to appreciate A Fatal Likeness, I do think it would help. The Shelley-related storyline stands well on its own, but I feel like it is a bit difficult for the reader to connect to Charles Maddox as protagonist in A Fatal Likeness not having the backstory presented in the earlier novels.

I generally enjoy historical fiction centered around historical personages whether well-known or obscure.  I think an author does her readers a disservice, however, when she assumes that they come to her book with significant previous knowledge of her subjects.  I will fully admit to not being familiar with Claire Clairmont and her significance (I almost always read author's notes and the like after I read the body of the text) and I was put off by how Shepherd begins the paragraph following Clairmont's introduction into the narrative: "It is a name that may well be familiar to you, but it means nothing whatsoever to Charles.  And he will not be alone, not in 1850 [...]" (56).

The biggest flaw with A Fatal Likeness is in just how unlikeable Shepherd makes all the historical personages as characters.  I came to the novel with no romantic notions about the individuals featured in it, as I was reading I found myself despising each of them in turns and none more so than the famous Shelleys themselves.  I can only imagine how a reader with a great love of any of this individuals might react to the demonization of one of their heroes. 

I do plan to put the other Charles Maddox books on my to-read list because I did enjoy the writing and style of A Fatal Likeness, if not all its particulars.
  1. detective
  2. After Murder at Mansfield Park and The Solitary House (published as Tom-All-Alone's in the UK, either of which I've read.
disclosure: I received a review copy of A Fatal Likeness from Bantam Dell (Random House) via NetGalley.

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