When a wealthy member of the aristocracy is murdered in his own London home, his body found sliced open and a satyr’s mask placed upon his face, it is up to the Bow Street Runners’ finest to investigate. The ambitious Aaron Graham, magistrate of London, is assigned to the case, but he has his own problems. His estranged wife, Sarah Graham, has recently taken up residence with another man, in a house that appears to be bewitched. Graham enlists his sometime colleague, the talented Wapping Constable Charles Horton to investigate. So begins a tale of sex, death and witchcraft in Georgian England in Lloyd Shepherd’s ‘Savage Magic’.
This is the third outing for Shepherd’s early police officers. His previous novels ‘The English Monster’ and ‘The Poisoned Island’ both dealt with ‘strange’ crimes being committed and they are investigated by Charles Horton. He is a modest, tough and talented police officer who’s favoured method of ‘investigation’ is somewhat at odds with the usual, brutal approach taken by the constabulary. Like Graham, his Westminster-based counterpart, he too has marital issues. His wife, Abigail, has checked herself into the Brook Hospital Mental Asylum as she keeps having visions of a dark-haired woman who may be a witch…
Shepherd divides our heroes between three spaces, each mysterious in their own right, the aforementioned mental asylum in Hackney, the bewitched country estate Thorpe in Surrey, where the villagers still believe witchcraft to be very real and, finally, the prostitute-filled streets of Covent Garden. While the gothic trappings of the asylum and the country house are obvious, it is the degradation and hopelessness of London’s sex industry that provides the most shocks. If you’re familiar with Dan Cruickshank’s ‘The Secret History Of Georgian London’, then you’ll know the extent of the trade in young women (young men, girls and boys, too) and the despair it drove people to. It is no diary of ‘Belle Du Jour’. Many young women were practically enslaved, offered false promises of marriage and fortunes by devious pimps only to find themselves on the streets. Shepherd brings the past to life as vibrantly as a Hogarth engraving. It is compelling and awful.
The intrigue of the plot however keeps the book rattling along. Graham’s investigations lead him to a secret ‘dining club’ who seek to model themselves on the Hellfire Club and Francis Dashwood’s eighteenth century antics, essentially drinking and sex parties wrapped-up in magic or satanic flim-flam. Parties where men abused their livers and then abused women. Needless to say the discovery of such a group within the Establishment rattles some of the highest figures in authority. This means Graham and Horton have to navigate their way carefully.
I enjoyed ‘Savage Magic’ but, if I had one criticism, it is that the ‘dark forces’ behind proceedings are revealed to the reader a little too early. The pursuit by the officers is still entertaining, though, and I found that I learned a lot, too. Shepherd has done some excellent research and provides the reader with an explanation of what is history and what is fiction at the end of the novel which is just as fascinating. As a recent BBC 4 season suggested, we as a nation are obsessed with the Georgians and with thrillers like Shepherd’s to entertain us, it is easy to see why.
(pub: Simon and Schuster. 432 page hardback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-47113-606-1)
check out website: www.simonandschuster.com