The Romantic poets provide a rich source of material for Lynn Shepherd’s latest historical mystery, A Fatal Likeness. This is the second outing for Charles Maddox, the discerning detective first introduced as the likely heir to his uncle’s legendary “thief-taking” legacy in Shepherd’s Dickensian mystery The Solitary House. Steeped in well-researched literary lore, A Fatal Likeness proposes an alternative history for Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, her volatile husband and renowned poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and their cohorts. Her multilayered story examines dark turns of mind and mysterious deaths that may be explained by the missing papers Maddox is charged with finding.
Although Maddox tackles the case in 1850, much of A Fatal Likeness takes us back in time to 1816, to the tumultuous summer that brought the Shelleys and Lord Byron together in a writers’ retreat filled with intrigue, infidelities and the ghost stories that gave life to Frankenstein. Shepherd also expands upon the untold story of Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, going back and forth between the naïve girl entranced by a world of poetry and the practical, self-protective woman Claire has become.
The third-person omniscient narration is at turns engaging and confounding as the past blends with the present. It’s an appropriate confusion, as much of Shepherd’s story hinges on the parallels between then and now. Many characters are mirror images of each other, and their entanglements feed the intrigue, although some complicated relationships will make more sense to Shelley scholars than the average reader.
Shepherd provides an intricate family tree and thorough explanatory notes to help readers discern which parts of the Shelley story are fact and which are fiction. Obviously knowledgeable about the history, Shepherd uses gaps in the record as a jumping-off point for her fiction, while still respecting the writers’ real-life stories. Lovers of literary mysteries and historical fiction will appreciate the balanced approach Shepherd takes in A Fatal Likeness.