Victorian era thief-taker (private detective) Charles Maddox has been working with is great uncle, also named Charles Maddox. Now, a stroke has rendered Maddox the elder incapable of doing business, so Maddox the younger takes on the latest case, which turns out to be a hire by Sir Percy Shelley, son of the Romantic poet, and his wife, Jane. It seems someone-namely Clair Clairmont, the step-sister of Mary Wollstonecraft, the widow of Shelley, former lover of Lord Byron and probable lover of Shelley as well- is threatening to make public certain papers of the long dead poet unless . Sir Percy- and especially Jane, who has a shrine to the poet in the living room- do not wish anything to tarnish the reputation of Shelley senior. They want Maddox to find out what, exactly, she has.
Through the acting abilities of Nancy, a prostitute and friend of an informant Maddox has used before, Charles Maddox finds himself a roomer in Clairmont’s house. It doesn’t take him long to discover some of the papers. It doesn’t take long, either, for Clair to confront him about what he’s doing in the house. She tells her side of the story and makes a counterproposal. That should be about the end of it, right?
Not even close. This all takes place in the very beginning of the book. As Maddox discovers that there are missing pages in his uncles record books about a case concerning Shelley before, he looks deeper. And deeper. More papers turn up, more tales from the past are told. It seems that the poet’s life was very tangled, involving several women, several children who died, and just possibly murder. Nothing about Shelley, it seems, was ever as it appeared to be.
It’s an interesting story, and Shepherd has researched her subjects well. Her story is not one of alternative history but of things that could well have happened in the missing spaces of what was recorded. She’s caught the flavor of the era well. Sadly, I found the book hard to follow. Too many people of the same or similar name, too many contradictory backstories. Told by an omnipotent third party and several characters, there is sometimes little to go on when a shift is made between narrators. I also wondered about the inclusion of Molly, the housemaid; she seemed like an expendable afterthought, something thrown in to show that Maddox had some iota of a personal life. She would have made a lot more impart if her character had been fleshed out –I have to admit, however, that I have not read the first two books in the series and she may well have played a bigger role in those.
The ending of the novel, though- that is really well done and totally unexpected, and made the whole thing worthwhile. Just maybe it should have a few tweaks before going to press.
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