Book Review: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know by Karl Shaw

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There I was, standing in the queue to collect my daughter's A-Level textbooks in Waterstone's, when the blue, swirly typeface of a book placed on a shelf to my left caught my eye. 

The cover image showed a rabble of well-dressed, eighteenth-century men. One being propped up by the legs, wheelbarrow-style, onto a chopping block, another holding his head in place and one masked man, clumsily wielding an axe, hovering above the bloke on the chopping block. I gave up my place in the queue, picked up the book and gave it a quick flick through: "Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know - The Extraordinary Exploits or the British and European Aristocracy." 

This HAD to be good. 

The book, written by Karl Shaw, is a whistle-stop tour through the last five hundred or so years and the stories the aristocratic families would probably prefer were forgotten. 

There's the magnificent Medieval-style joust held in 1839 which turned out to be a literal washout, tales of table-groaning feasts and of adulteries, brothels, sporting accidents, shootings and duels. I enjoyed some of the stories of duchesses (some from humble backgrounds) who married into the families and their efforts to secure their status and wealth after the death of their husbands. There's also plenty of sex, some murder, gambling, accounts of madness and the never-ending search for wealth. 

At 388 pages long, it's a chunky read, but it's also incredibly fast-paced. The only criticism I have is that there's a huge amount of information here, and a 'Select Bibliography' at the back of the book. I would have liked to have seen sources noted, but that might be just because I am a history nerd and probably would have meant an even chunkier book. And some images would have been nice, to put names to faces. But it's nothing a quick search on your phone can't do, while you read along. 

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know will give you a different insight into the European aristocracy. They may gaze out as us, aloof and reserved, from their stuffy, posed portraits hung in ornate gilt frames - but the anecdotes here are the real characters behind them. 

Ask for Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know at your local bookshop, or you can find it on Amazon here

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