Savage Magic

A stunning evocation of a period. Madness, maleficium, murder, beautifully written with superlative skill.

It’s very rare that a new style of writing comes floating over my desk. Usually nowadays I take the easy line with reviews – if I don’t like the book, I prefer not to comment on it. In the last three months, I’ve review three books, but fifteen have not received a comment from me.
In the past I have made efforts to uncover any positive aspect of a book and then push that, because the mere fact that I may dislike a novel means nothing. My opinion of a book must be entirely subjective, just as everyone else’s will be too. No one can be truly objective: the style, the plot, the characterisation will all gel or not, depending on the reader’s mood, relationships and comfort at that moment.
And the one kind of book I seriously do not like to receive is anything from the crime genre.
I love crime, but it’s grown into certain fixed, static forms. The cosy, the slasher gore-fest that has grown to replace the gothic horror novels of the 70s, the (to me) somewhat inane police procedural, and so on. Generally they involve not particularly bright investigators looking at an event and walking around chatting to suspects with gentle politeness (unbelievable) or repressed fury (equally unbelievable). In recent years I haven’t found any new writers that involve or interest me particularly.
Lloyd Shepherd is different, I am very glad to say.
In part this story reminds me of the direction of “Night of the Generals” by HH Kirst. The point of view moves between four main protagonists: Mr Graham, the magistrate at Bow Street; one of the river police officers, Horton; Dr Bryson, a Doctor of the mentally ill; Abigail Horton, the officer’s wife, who is suffering from a mental infirmity. Like Kirst’s book, the scenes are interrupted: Kirst had police reports and telegrams, commentaries that explained the story. In Savage Music, the interruptions are sections taken from Bryson’s treatise on “Moral Projection”, a superbly judged and written piece in the style of an early Victorian doctor.
The story begins with a man waiting for a ship. It brings a sense of malevolence to the story that lingers throughout. From there we see Abigail Horton willingly taking herself to the home for the mentally deranged, closely followed by the magistrate calling upon Horton to ask for his help. His wife has left him, taking their child to her cousin’s house in Surrey. There she and her cousin live in a scandalous relationship. But more shocking, perhaps, are the rumours of witchcraft in the house that are being bruited about.
But all this is merely a taster. Then we are presented with the murder of a wealthy, dissolute young man. His mutilated body is discovered with a satyr’s mask in a locked room – and thus begins the investigation.
In essence this is a locked room mystery, but one transported back into the early 1800s, when superstition and jealousy could divert any investigator. The book does not feel or read like a reimagining of other books. It is a thrilling, superbly written story, in which the characters remain consistent and true to their situations, and the plot draws the reader in at every fresh development.
I loved this book. After reading it, I’ll be looking up the earlier titles in the series.

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