Disgraced policeman turned independent investigator Charles Maddox made a career choice to follow in the footsteps of his uncle by the same name, England’s greatest detective but now in decline. As Charles moves to his uncle’s home to bring order to the chaos wrought by the elderly Maddox’s dementia, he discovers that despite his advancing illness, the old man often has times of shocking lucidity. In these moments, Charles is invigorated by his uncle’s precise mind and encouraged to continue with his work, even with the most disappointing of his cases: the long-unsolved disappearance of a missing girl. The tenacious nephew simply cannot give up on his search for the child, positive that at some point he will find the answers he seeks.
Certainly Maddox, most at home on London streets teeming with prostitutes and pickpockets, is curious when invited to the exclusive uptown office of Edward Turkington, the most powerful and influential lawyer in England. More than happy to oblige Turkington’s assignment to discover the identity of a person writing threatening notes to the solicitor’s wealthy client, Maddox is disinclined to end his inquiries once that identity has been provided and the fee paid. He is certain that more here merits further investigation than Turkington would have him believe.
Predictably, Maddox locates the author of the notes but continues to research Turkington and his wealthy client. It isn’t long before Maddox’s continued prodding is met with threat and violence, actions that only solidify his intention to find out what the lawyer and his cronies are up to and what activities they are trying to hide. In an unlikely but welcome turn of events, Maddox discovers a link between his two cases, but not before his efforts have produced a bloody episode or two.
Shepherd combines her love of Charles Dickens and Victorian London with her protagonist, sometimes mimicking the writer’s tales and locations, an homage that adds a layer to the reader’s perspective of the city during that period, the squalor and poverty of the slums contrasting with the elegant estates of the extravagantly wealthy who collect priceless artifacts and dabble in perversions for entertainment. Clearly not of this latter group, Maddox is most productive in his element on the streets or lurking in shadows, either among the crowds of poor Londoners or in his domestic situation, organizing his uncle’s household as the old man slips into the past.
Interspersed with the chapters of Maddox’s activities are the pages of “Hester’s Narrative,” the diary of a young girl taken into a particular establishment by her guardian after her mother’s tragic death. The chilling account describes an existence far from that of other ordinary girls. That Hester’s story should become part of the larger tale adds another Dickensian touch to Shepherd’s Victorian mystery, Maddox an unlikely but grateful hero in an unmatched struggle where power and privilege mask a heinous secret.