In the middle of the 19th century, young detective Charles Maddox is called to the London home of Sir Percy Shelley and his wife Lady Jane. The only surviving child of the poet Shelley and his novelist wife Mary, Percy wants to protect the reputation of his increasingly infamous parents by buying up any and all rogue letters that threaten the safety of the past. Maddox is given the name of the latest pedlar of letters but he soon discovers that this is no ordinary tittle tatler – Claire Clairmont is the stepsister of Mary Shelley and what she knows could be lethal to the memory of the Romantic poet as well as to Mary, the author of Frankenstein.
This tale, though, follows a dark and twisted path. The light of romanticism and love is obscured by the night of madness, corrupt desire, death and vengeance. There is another reason for Percy and Jane to hire Maddox to put a stop to Claire’s memoirs. They know that Maddox has his own connection to Shelley through his great uncle, also called Charles Maddox, who fell into a catatonic stricken state, close to dying, just at the mention of the word ‘Shelley’. The younger Maddox must blunder on, building together the pieces from the lives of Shelley, Mary, Claire and Shelley’s first wife, Harriet. So many of them, including their children, are dead. Maddox is so intent on the past, though, including that of his great uncle, that he can barely see what’s going on in front of his eyes. It’s all quite a riddle.
My knowledge of Shelley (Mr and Mrs) and Byron is limited to gothic movies and university seminars. Having been drawn to them as an impressionable youngster for their hedonistic frolicking amongst the sun-drenched ruins of Italy, now I find them alarming and ambiguous. A Treacherous Likeness makes me take another look, combining the conventional view with the tragic reality of lives cut short, often mysteriously, and sometimes at a cruelly young age. I’m not going to pretend to like Shelley or Mary Shelley. Both are clearly damaged, as are some of the others around them. Here, though, there are suggestions of something even blacker. These are tortured individuals, often very hard to sympathise with. There’s a strong sense that it all has to be resolved. The job, though, isn’t made easy for Maddox.
A Treacherous Likeness is an immersive novel. It steeps you in the time through its present tense narrative, its sense of place and immediacy, its fidelity to mid 19th-century styles of storytelling. This could take a while to get used to, it did for me, but once comfortable in the style, the reader is treated to an evocative, atmospheric maze of a read. It is extremely moving in places just as there are other parts of it which made me feel disgust. It’s a story that provokes strong feelings.
This novel follows on from Maddox’s earlier investigation in Tom-All-Alone’s but it stands strong on its own feet. A Treacherous Likeness is a tale of love, loss and madness, which is never simple but is very hard to put down.