Savage Magic, published in 2014, is Lloyd Shepherd’s third historical mystery to feature Charles Horton of the Thames River Police. The books all stand alone, so if you’ve never come across this series before you could easily read this one first without having read the previous two. Having said that, I found the other two – The English Monster and The Poisoned Island – much stronger and wouldn’t recommend starting here.
After a brief prologue, Savage Magic opens in London in 1814 with Abigail Horton entering Brooke House, a ‘private madhouse for the deranged’. She has made the decision to do this voluntarily as she has been suffering from visions of a wild, savage woman, haunting her dreams and pursuing her through her waking hours. Afraid she is losing her sanity, Abigail hopes she can receive the help she needs at Brooke House, but her husband, Constable Horton, is hurt when he discovers that she has done this without confiding in him first.
Meanwhile, Horton’s superior, the magistrate Aaron Graham, is also concerned about his own wife, who has left him to go and live with her new lover, taking their young daughter with her. Graham has heard some very disturbing rumours about Thorpe Lee House, where his wife and daughter are now living, and he sends Horton off to investigate. Horton has barely left London when a murder takes place, under the strangest of circumstances. A wealthy, aristocratic gentleman is found dead in his own bed, wearing a satyr’s mask on his face. This is only the first in a series of similar murders in which all of the victims are from the same social circle and all disguised by a mask. With Horton gone, Graham is left to investigate the killings himself.
At first, the separate strands of the story feel quite unconnected, with Graham trying to solve the London murders and Horton, miles away, becoming embroiled in accusations of witchcraft and hauntings at Thorpe Lee House. Eventually, everything begins to fall into place and we see how they are linked – and how the key to the entire mystery may lie in the events which occur behind the walls of Brooke House Asylum.
Reading back over what I’ve written above, I know this sounds like the sort of book I would usually enjoy…and yet I was disappointed. It’s possible that if I hadn’t loved Lloyd Shepherd’s first two novels so much, I might have liked this one more, but I’m not sure. The English Monster combined an investigation into the Ratcliffe Highway Murders with a pirate adventure in the Caribbean, while The Poisoned Island featured the story of a Tahitian prince. By comparison, I found this book less exotic, less exciting and lacking the originality of the previous two. It seemed like a much more conventional novel and, although I was pleased to see Abigail given a larger role to play, the asylum storyline is something I feel I’ve read several times before.
I do still like Lloyd Shepherd’s writing (despite the annoying use of present tense) and I love the way he creates atmosphere – the scenes which take place at the supposedly haunted Thorpe Lee House are particularly good and, knowing how Shepherd has used supernatural elements in his other books, I was kept wondering whether there really were witches at work or whether there was a more logical explanation. There was too much switching between one storyline and another, though; there were too many different threads to keep hold of and it took too long for them to start coming together.
The fourth book in the series, The Detective and the Devil, sounds more promising. I haven’t been put off reading it, but I’m not in any hurry either.