Day 426: A Fatal Likeness

Cover for A Fatal LikenessIn A Fatal Likeness, Lynn Shepherd has created her own gothic horror around the mysteries in the real lives of two fans of the gothic, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, the writer Mary Shelley. It is not only a dark story, but some of it is relatively plausible, given the research Shepherd has done into their lives. Ever since I read Shepherd’s astounding reworking of Bleak House, The Solitary House, I have been a fan of her narrative skills, her writing skills, and her imagination.

Shepherd’s detective, Charles Maddox, is summoned to the home of Percy Shelley, the son of the deceased poet. Shelley and his wife have established a shrine to the poet’s memory and say they are worried about some papers someone is offering to sell them. Mrs. Shelley in particular has been responsible for destroying any papers that would tarnish Shelley’s legacy. They hire Charles to find out what is contained in these papers.

Charles has his own reasons for taking the job, for his beloved great-uncle, also Charles Maddox, the master detective who trained him and is his only family, suffered a stroke upon receiving a calling card bearing the name of his client. Charles learns from his assistant Abel that his great-uncle was employed on a case years before for William Godwin, the brilliant philosopher and Mary Shelley’s father. When the file on this case is located, though, some of the pages have been torn out.

Charles takes a room in the home of the person purveying the papers, whom Charles has been told is an Italian man, and it is not long before he realizes his landlady is Clair Clairmont. Clair, the step-sister of Mary Shelley, infamously ran off with Shelley and Mary when both the girls were only sixteen and Shelley was still married to his first wife, Harriet.

Charles is soon to realize that everyone involved in this case has ulterior motives, those of the Shelleys to find out whether a record of the earlier case still exists, as it certainly contains damaging information. With his great-uncle only slowly recovering, it is up to Charles to discover what mysteries lurk in the Shelleys’ past. As he investigates the earlier case, he finds records of an even earlier encounter with his great-uncle.

The Shelleys’ past is a rat’s nest, with two young suicided women, Shelley’s first wife and Mary’s other step-sister, with several dead infants, with Shelley’s own history of delusions, hallucinations, fits, and obsessions. Each person’s story of the fraught years of the Shelleys’ relationship is different, and it is difficult to know what or whom to believe. It is not long before Charles is to think Percy Shelley was something of a monster.

Doubles are a theme throughout the novel. Shelley is always involved with two women at once, two young women commit suicide, Shelley is obsessed with the idea of a doppelganger and thinks he has encountered a monster with his own face. Charles’ great-uncle was partially deceived long ago by the likeness he perceived between the young Mary Godwin and a lost love.

Shepherd’s writing style is distinctive. She writes in limited third person but overlays this voice occasionally with observations from a more knowing narrator of a later time, perhaps the present. The effect is slightly facetious and ironic in tone.

Her research into this time period and into the lives of the Shelleys is clearly extensive. She impressed me with The Solitary House and here she continues to do so with a fascinating, disturbing tale about some turbulent personalities.

15 thoughts on “Day 426: A Fatal Likeness

  1. Carolyn O November 14, 2013 / 1:03 pm

    It just occurred to me, Kay, that you’re the person I “know” who reads the most detective fiction. Do you have any particular favorites in the genre?

    • whatmeread November 14, 2013 / 1:12 pm

      Hmmm, that’s a tough one because there are all kinds of detective fiction. I tend to avoid series detective novels, although I DO read a few of them. My problem is that I get tired of them if the characters don’t develop, which often happens. I have been reading Louise Penny, although I am not sure I like where the series is going. If you start at the beginning, though, it will take you awhile to get to the latest ones (although the last one has wrapped up some plots in quite a satisfying manner, but I’m not quite sure if it’s not the last one in the series). I used to love Elizabeth George, and if you try her, you definitely need to start with the first one, which is A Great Deliverance. I kind of like the Craig Johnson Longmire series, although I can tell I might be getting tired of them. Lynn Shepherd’s books have a detective, although with her, there is a lot more going on. What she likes to do is a different interpretation of a classic work. A lot depends on how dark you like the mysteries to be, whether you like private detectives or cops, historical or contemporary, cozies or not, police procedurals or otherwise. Although I do read a lot of mysteries, I find myself not reading as many of them lately, although you probably can’t tell that yet from my reviews. Oh, Lyndsay Faye, whom I reviewed yesterday, is turning out to be quite promising. If you tell me more about what kind of books you like in general, I can probably give you better advice.

      • Carolyn O November 14, 2013 / 1:21 pm

        I’m not much of a mystery reader, so I don’t have defined tastes. I liked Agatha Christie when I was younger, though I haven’t read any of her books in years, and I just read The Big Sleep (loved it) and Alex (liked, especially for the structure). And I like Sherlock Holmes, but then, who doesn’t? Heard great things about Dorothy Sayers too.

      • whatmeread November 14, 2013 / 1:31 pm

        Hmmm, that’s a wide range right there. I like Dorothy Sayers, but she can be a little uneven. For example, The Nine Tailors is about bell-ringing, and I had no idea what she was talking about half the time. I’m not sure what you mean by Alex. It sounds like you like more of the old-fashioned mysteries, though, so maybe try Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. For something completely light, try any mysteries by Georgette Heyer, the famous writer of Regency romances. Hers are quite fun. Josephine Tey has written a famous book you might like called The Daughter of Time about Richard III (not historical, but her detective is laid up in the hospital and decides to figure our whether Richard murdered the boys in the tower). And here’s something really different. Lindsey Davis writes a series about a detective in ancient Rome that has an amusing and genial “detective. Her first one, which I recommend, is Silver Pigs. I don’t so much read the noirs, which is what The Big Sleep is, but The Killer Inside Me, which I reviewed awhile back, is a classic noir.

      • Cecilia November 15, 2013 / 6:32 pm

        I haven’t read a lot of mystery but Kay and I had a conversation a little while back about Tana French, whom we both really like. I was disappointed that the few mysteries I had tried seemed so formulaic or “macho” (for lack of a better word; there’s just this sort of “manly” detective voice that I don’t like) and then I found Tana French. Her books (well, I only read 2 so far) are more literary and her character development is strong.

      • whatmeread November 18, 2013 / 7:49 am

        You might like Gillian Flynn, too.

    • Cecilia November 14, 2013 / 1:14 pm

      I like Carolyn’s question. Also, how do you find your books?

      • whatmeread November 14, 2013 / 1:21 pm

        A lot of different ways. For literary fiction, I read NY Times reviews and Washington post and just try to pay attention to what people are talking about. I read other blogger reviews, too. I keep a running list of books that sound interesting from Best Book of the Year lists (which means I’m always behind), and I try to at least read about the winners of major awards to see if I think I might like them. But I also just pick up books because I like their cover! I buy way too many books! I have recently gotten involved with Netgalley, too, which provides electronic review copies to “professional writers,” which it considers us to be because we’re bloggers. With those, it’s harder to tell because sometimes all you have to go on is their publisher blurb. And of course I have authors I like so much that I buy anything they write. I haven’t been the best about reading literary fiction, so I’m trying to read more of that and fewer genre books. And I also have authors that I read over and over.

      • Cecilia November 14, 2013 / 7:37 pm

        Thanks, Kay! That’s interesting to know. I also have way, way too many books, and bloggers like you are not helping! 😉 (I love it!)

      • Carolyn O November 14, 2013 / 1:21 pm

        Yes, I’m wondering that too!

      • whatmeread November 14, 2013 / 1:32 pm

        So, how do you two find your books?

      • Cecilia November 15, 2013 / 6:37 pm

        Good question…I find them mainly through book blogs, amazon, Shelf Awareness, the Harvard Bookstore newsletter…I also like looking up best of the month and best of the year lists. I am always “shopping” and looking when I should be reading!

      • whatmeread November 18, 2013 / 7:50 am

        I’m not aware of Shelf Awareness. I’ll check it out.

  2. Ariel Price November 14, 2013 / 6:22 pm

    Wow! This sounds really fascinating! Thanks so much for reviewing. I’m not usually one for mysteries, but I’m adding this to my list.

    • whatmeread November 15, 2013 / 7:38 am

      I think Shepherd’s work is fascinating, particularly The Solitary House. I don’t even really classify them mentally as mysteries, because I think the mystery solving is the least of what is going on, although the reader is certainly trying to figure out what’s going on.

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