The British writer Lynn Shepherd has been known for years as the writer who
turns literary classics into thrilling crime novels. Her previous books--Murder at Mansfield Park,
The Solitary House, and A Treacherous Likeness--are all award winners. Her latest novel, The Pierced Heart, is the drawn-out story of a young woman at the mercy of a diabolical scientist. It focuses on “phantasmagoria,” things that cannot be explained, revisits the Great Exhibition of 1851, and juxtaposes those who believe in vampires with a Jack-the-Ripper killer.
Dracula, in The Pierced Heart, detective Charles Maddox is employed by the University of Oxford to investigate the Baron Von Reisenberg, a wealthy Austrian nobleman who wishes to make a sizeable donation to Oxford’s famous Bodleian Library. When Charles arrives at the Baron’s castle, he is escorted to the most beautiful library he has ever seen. In this collection that is the work of several generations, Maddox quickly discerns that everything seems to be in order. Left alone to wander the estate while the Baron attends to business, Charles stumbles upon a macabre collection of scientific instruments, including many female bodies preserved in wax, some of which are animated to appear alive. The Baron explains he is studying mental phenomena, but when Charles questions his methods, the Baron has him committed to a sanatorium for a dangerous brain fever.
Maddox, we are told, is descended from a line of physicians, a profession he rejected. He is haunted by the memory of his younger sister, lost on crowded street years ago. As a protagonist, Charles Maddox isn’t very interesting. He is a problem-solver, devoted to his work, without an inner life. The reader cares little for the characters in this story because they lack any personality. With chapters that alternate between Maddox in London trying to solve a series of serial murders and Lucy’s journal about her battle with insomnia, the reader soon loses interest in what happens to either character. Those who cannot bear graphic descriptions of abused corpses may wish to pass on this novel.
In The Pierced Heart, Shepherd is drawing from the strange life of a discredited German scientist who believed in an occult energy that suffused the entire universe. He believed certain sensitive people, subject to the powers of moonlight, could conjure ghosts at séances. In an era when England was experiencing a scientific and industrial boom, there were those who continued to be drawn to the paranormal, believing in the possibility of undead souls wandering among the general population. “There is a vampire at large in London, stalking its most hallowed quarters,” says the young man in the library. The legend of vampires fascinates both authors and filmmakers and will most likely continue as long as there are things that cannot be easily explained.