Familiar conventions get a fresh coat of paint in this historical novel full of pithy observations that offer a nod to Jane Austen and colorful characters straight out of Dickens. Young schoolmaster Thomas Shield gets tangled up in a set of murders among the English merchant class in 1819. He bounces from a gruesome murder scene to passionate canoodling to a terrifying stint in a coffin—and his eyes just keep getting wider. (Yes, the use of a naive narrator isn't exactly fresh either.)
Despite the shopworn elements, Taylor constructs an entertaining, sometimes enchanting, world. Shield is an idealist shaken by dirty dealings and a virgin enflamed by young women. Following his thoughts—starchy and pious one moment, swollen and agonized the next—is far more entertaining than solving the book's central mystery, which turns out to be connected to Shield's American student, Edgar Allan Poe.