The Lambs of London Peter Ackroyd Chatto & Windus $240 Peter Ackroyd is literature's foremost practitioner of the dark arts. Suffusing his novels with a malevolence rooted in the supernatural, a murderer's casual viciousness or the bloodstains of legend, he agitates and unsettles by smearing a patina of normality over a pustulating tension that vexes like toothache. Again carving a historical narrative from a genuine literary past, Ackroyd makes the eponymous Lambs victims of senility, insanity, drunkenness and a whining peevishness maddening enough to provoke a fatal stabbing. The Lambs are a dysfunctional family, and Ackroyd's London is a psycho-geographical construct with a wicked will of its own. London isn't a backdrop to Ackroyd's work. It's a character playing the biggest and most significant part - the star of the show. Ackroyd, remember, has even written its life story, London, The Biography. Here, sensuously rendered, its streets 'littered with orange peel, scraps of newspaper and fallen leaves' and home to the cacophonous capital mob, it's the guiding hand that leads the alcoholic Charles Lamb and his smallpox-scarred sister, Mary, into a ruinous confidence trick. Charles and Mary are historical figures. Charles, anchored to the dismal desk job of a clerk, dreamed of literary stardom. Mary, in a fit of lunacy, killed their mother with a table-knife. After the attack, Charles devoted himself to her care and continued writing, eventually earning his big break when he was invited to join a publishing endeavour that resulted in the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare. The celebrated series introduces the dramatist to young readers. His tragedies were deciphered by Charles, his comedies by Mary. In his alternative history, Ackroyd fixes his sacrificial Lambs at the centre of an 18th-century literary plagiarism scam perpetuated by young bookseller William Ireland, who was also a real figure. Claiming the discovery of Shakespearean artefacts - a poem, a will and a lock of red hair suspiciously similar to his own - Ireland snares the Lambs, both ripe for the thrill of escapism dangled by the personal effects of their quill-flourishing hero. But Ireland, desperately seeking a name for himself, is a forger, albeit a skilled one. His sleight of hand holds water until vanity pushes him too far, and he supposedly chances on the tragedy Vortigern, purportedly Shakespeare's lost work of violence, sorcery and delusion presenting the fifth-century British king of the same name. Ackroyd, however, is a sympathetic puppeteer, acknowledging the needs of his trio to 'be' someone, even if they have to be someone else. The London mob, a tatty version of the Greek chorus, reprises its role as a conduit for truth, knowing doggerel when it hears it and piercing the inflated fake of Vortigern. But it's the city that has its name in lights. If a man is tired of London he can't begin to appreciate Ackroyd. The city is the central nervous system of his imagination, throbbing with sinister intent, glowering from the shadows and only occasionally letting in a little light at the edges.