Title: A Fatal Likeness
No. of Pages: 384
Origins: LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program; Delacorte Press
Release Date: 20 July 2013
Bottom Line: Fascinating hypothesis about a shadowy year in the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley’s relationship
“When his great-uncle, the master detective who schooled him in the science of ‘thief taking,’ is mysteriously stricken, Charles Maddox fears that the old man’s breakdown may be directly related to the latest case he’s been asked to undertake. Summoned to the home of a stuffy nobleman and his imperious wife, Charles finds his investigative services have been engaged by no less than the son of celebrated poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his famed widow, Mary, author of the gothic classic Frankenstein. Approached by a stranger offering to sell a cache of rare papers allegedly belonging to the legendary late poet, the Shelley family seeks Maddox’s aid in discovering whether the precious documents are authentic or merely the work of an opportunistic charlatan.
But the true identity of his quarry is only the first of many surprises lying in wait for the detective. Hardly a conniving criminal, Claire Clairmont is in fact the stepsister of Mary Shelley, and their tortured history of jealousy, obsession, and dark deceit looms large over the affair Maddox must untangle. So, too, does the shadow of the brilliant, eccentric Percy Shelley, who found no rest from the private demons that pursued him. With each new detail unearthed, the investigation grows ever more disturbing. And when shocking evidence of foul play comes to light, Maddox’s chilling hunt for the truth leads him into the blackest reaches of the soul.”
Thoughts: One of the best things about A Fatal Likeness is how carefully Lynn Shepherd ties together the correspondence and journal entries to formulate a very possible explanation for what is often considered a blank period in the Percy/Mary relationship. Ms. Shepherd even goes so far as to detail which elements of the story are based on fact and which fictional elements she brought in to flesh out the story. Doing so makes one appreciate her imagination as well as her ability to extrapolate based on certain clues. While no one will ever know what Percy, Mary, and Claire experienced during those years, Ms. Shepherd does her best to create a scenario that is just as likely as anything else historians have theorized.
Another excellent aspect of the story is the historical elements of detective work. While Charles Maddox is a second-generation thief taker, detective work is still in its infancy throughout A Fatal Likeness. In addition to being a fascinating historical detail, Charles’ use of paid informants, bribes, extortion, and even physical violence to uncover the truth provides an excellent comparison point for today’s detectives and the relative ease with which they can go about their work.
Because the story jumps between the past, when Percy was alive, and the present, when his son now holds his title, many of the characters have the same name. The use of present tense throughout the story does nothing to distinguish these characters. As such, readers have to pay particularly close attention in order to decipher which Mrs. Shelley in which time period the story is following at any given time. The necessity of having to keep track of this in order to understand the story does detract from one’s overall enjoyment because it becomes impossible to completely lose oneself within the narrative. The story is too complex and the characters too closely connected to be able to read without having to pause to remember or discern a character. For other stories, careful reading is perfectly acceptable, but for a detective novel, it seems less than desirable.
A Fatal Likeness is intense and exciting, but it is not the type of novel that lingers in one’s mind. In fact, several weeks after finishing the story, one may find it difficult to remember key details of the plot. While this does not diminish the thrills incurred while reading the story, it does lessen the overall impact of the story. In essence, it becomes nothing more than a good detective novel but something far removed from a life-changing experience.