Lloyd Shepherd’s debut, The English Monster, begins with a puzzle: six pirates are hanged from the gallows by a river; five of them are dead, but one of them is only pretending to be dead.
It is an enticing hook – macabre and gory – and sets the tone for a yarn which is part pirate adventure, part detective story, part historical fiction and part horror.
The novel is broadly set over two time periods, with two narratives.
In 1564 (during the reign of Queen Elizabeth) a flotilla of ships, captained by John Hawkyns, is on a clandestine trade mission; his crew includes Billy Ablass, a young man seeking his fortune.
In ‘the present’ (1811), the local officials in Shadwell and Wapping bungle the investigation into a set of apparently motiveless killings, which will go down in history as the Ratcliffe Highway murders. The jaded magistrate, John Harriott, undertakes to catch the perpetrator, with the assistance of Waterman-Constable Charles Horton.
John Hawkyns’s voyage, a real historical event, was the first official attempt to exploit what Shepherd chillingly refers to as ‘African treasure’. Rumours fly above and below decks as Billy Abless pieces together the purpose of their grizzly assignment. It will spawn a global trade, generating fabulous wealth for some – and unimaginable suffering for a great many others. The riches seem to be guaranteed; the question becomes whether Billy will return to his beloved wife, Kate, with his body and soul still intact?
Meanwhile, the 19th century murders take place in a filthy maritime metropolis on the Thames. Trade (with a capital ‘T’) is the lifeblood of the riverside community now living in fear. Law and Order, by comparison, is still in its infancy. There are no established procedures to run an effective murder investigation, only the intuition of Waterman-Constable Charles Horton, a character with a shady past and an undignified fascination with the facts that is ahead of his time. It is he who discovers the killer’s calling card, a silver piece of eight.
Shepherd’s imagination is dark and disconcerting. He has knitted together two distinct episodes from British history (or rather, English history) to make a ghoulish exploration of greed, bloodlust and perceived entitlement. Though historical, this novel is very much a post-Credit Crunch work; it is a story of how the mindless pursuit of wealth – at the expense of people – is ugly, immoral and devastating.
The corruption of young Billy Ablass is more successfully drawn than the Regency murder mystery. Occasionally, Shepherd is distracted by his admiration of the historical figure of John Harriott, when he has actually created a compelling new detective in Charles Horton who deserves more time centre stage.
Despite this, The English Monster is atmospheric, gruesome and gripping. With Shepherd as their quartermaster, readers who enjoyed ‘Perfume’ by Patrick Suskind will find plenty on this voyage to appal and intrigue them.
The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd
Published in the UK by Simon & Schuster, March 2012
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