Peter Ackroyd prefaces The Lambs of London with a disclaimer:
"This is not a biography but a work of fiction. I have invented characters, and changed the life of the Lamb family for the sake of the larger narrative." Unfortunately, as far as I am concerned, the characters he invented were too insignificant and the factual changes too pointless for this to be considered a real work of fiction. I feel like the little boy in the story of the emperor's new clothes when I say this looked to me like a badly-written biography that should never have made it to the printer, except for the beautiful cover.
I have read and admired Ackroyd's biographies of Dickens, Thomas More and T.S Eliot and his books about London. I have also read several of his novels: Hawksmoor, The House of Doctor Dee, and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. I found them compelling but not enjoyable. He writes with no sympathy for his characters, for him "the larger narrative" is all important but, as a reader, I need to feel engaged with the people as well as the events in a story.
The Lambs of London didn't work at any level for me. The characters were so thinly drawn that I frankly didn't care what happened to any of them. Even if I hadn't known William Ireland's story, I could have guessed it from the outset, so there was no mystery to hold my interest. The factual details were changed for no literary purpose: Mary's knife is changed to a fork; she dies before Charles does according to this story; Malone's role is changed from William's denouncer to his supporter. I found these changes irritating and they added nothing to the story.
There are some flashes of Ackroyd brilliance in the book in his sketches of early nineteenth century London life. No-one but Dickens has his ability to take the reader inside the theatre, shop or inn and there is a convincing encounter with the people who live along the river. And the book cover is beautiful.