A Treacherous Likeness – Lynn Shepherd

Title – A Treacherous Likeness

Author – Lynn Shepherd

Published – 7 Feb 2013

Genre – Historical crime fiction

It’s safe to say that I either love or hate crime fiction that has a historical setting – top marks for Simon Scarrow & Philip Kerr but books like The Interpretation of Murder I really can’t get on with. As a fan of P D James I waded through Death Comes to Pemberley but that felt more like torture than pleasure, so when I received a proof of A Treacherous Likeness from Corsair I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The story is a piece of detective fiction involving Percy Bysshe Shelley’s widow Mary and their only surviving son. The investigator is Charles Maddox (who was also caught up in Shepherd’s earlier Tom-All-Alone’s) who is employed to secure some papers from a mystery woman who threatens to damage Shelley’s reputation. As Maddox tries to fulfil his part of the deal he makes a discovery that harks back to 25 years earlier when there is some suggestion that Shelley’s path crossed with that of Maddox’s uncle, who has recently been struck down by a mystery illness.

The book is dark and the author captures the horror and squalor of the times with what appears to be a hugely detailed knowledge of the period. There is lot going on – there are multiple threads to the story and more than one mystery to be solved along the way. The author keeps the pace up and I found the family tree included in the front of the book very helpful in keeping track of who was related / married to who.

My difficulty here is knowing how to describe Shepherd’s style of writing. The language feels like something from the period whilst still being easy to read. I have managed only a few pages of Frankenstein before giving up, so can’t claim to know much about the style of the time. The writing has a semi-biographical feel to it as although the story is set in the mid-nineteenth century the author recognises that we’re reading the book in 2013. This means that there are nods to what we might know now that Maddox wouldn’t have been aware of in his lifetime. This doesn’t in any way spoil the narrative but does shift the reader’s perspective.

I knew very little about the romantic poets, barring a visit to the Protestant cemetery in Rome, so as an introduction to the lives of Shelley, and to a lesser extent Byron, this was a real eye-opener. I was concerned that there were a number of aspects in the story where Shepherd was taking liberties with the lives of historical characters who were unable to defend themselves. However it seems that I needn’t have worried!

Looking at another way, once you read the author’s notes, Shepherd has done a great job of weaving a story no less credible than any of the facts that surround these larger than life characters, into the spaces and gaps in our knowledge of them. No mean feat!

An excellent read even if you know nothing about the historical characters concerned and perhaps even more fascinating if you don’t. And I’m going to use this book as an excuse to include a reference to one of my all time favourite paintings – ‘The funeral of Shelley’, Louis Edouard Fournier, 1889 – because I can!

Score – 4/5



  1. I know just what you mean about historical mysteries. Either they’re deftly done, as this one seems to be, or they’re not well-at-all done. Sometimes I find it’s because the author gets bogged down in self-consciously describing the era (almost, it seems, as though trying to demonstrate knowledge). Sometimes it’s the language as you point out effectively. I really enjoy historical mysteries when they are done well so it’s good to hear that this one turned out well.

    1. Thanks Margot. I do find it irritating when the author feels the need to prove they’ve done their research by adding lots of description. It’s much more effective here as the reader is shown rather than told.

  2. I just read a newspaper review of this book today and was thinking of getting it – you have confirmed me in that decision. It sounds very interesting, and I so agree with you that historical fiction can go either way….

  3. I’m exactly the same with historical mysteries Sue. I either love them or find them a bit torpid. I quite fancy this one though as I like the setting. It’s going on my list!

  4. A very interesting review. I loved the letters from Shelley and Clairmont. My review comes out on Thursday (I did another lengthy one today and have to hold my fire before I run out of things to write about!)

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