Well, this was one of the most unusual books I’ve read for a long time! It got off to a great start and after reading the first few chapters (in which we witness six pirates being hanged at London’s Execution Dock, go on a midnight journey through the dark streets of 19th century Wapping, and meet a sea captain at an inn in Plymouth) I was beginning to feel very excited about this book. It seemed destined to become one of my favourites of the year, although by the time I finished it, I did feel a little bit less enthusiastic about it.
The novel consists of two alternating stories set in different time periods, but while they may appear to be entirely separate at first, there is in fact a link between the two of them. The way in which they are linked is not immediately obvious so I’ll leave you to discover the connection for yourself.
The first story, set in the Regency period, is based on a true crime which involved the killing of members of two different families in the Wapping area of London in December 1811. These deaths became known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. There was no official police force in England at that time and the way the case was handled was amateurish and incompetent. The English Monster introduces us to John Harriott, the magistrate of the Thames River Police Office, and Waterman-Constable Charles Horton as they attempt to investigate the murders.
The second thread of the novel, beginning in October 1564, is a good old fashioned swashbuckling adventure story following Billy Ablass, a young man who decides to go to sea to make his fortune and finds himself aboard a ship owned by Queen Elizabeth I, ready to embark on England’s first official slaving voyage. Or at least, I thought I was reading a good old fashioned adventure story – until I came to a very surprising and dramatic twist that made it obvious this was definitely not going to be a conventional historical fiction novel or a conventional murder mystery either. And of course I’m not going to tell you what the twist is – you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out.
When a novel has multiple timelines, I usually find I’m drawn to one period more than the other but with this book I think I can honestly say I enjoyed them both equally. The Ratcliffe Highway story was fascinating, especially the insights we are given into how useless and inadequate the investigation was. I found Charles Horton a very interesting character: a ‘detective’ working in an era when modern methods of detection were almost non-existent. I believe Horton and the magistrate John Harriott are going to reappear in Lloyd Shepherd’s next book and I’m looking forward to meeting them again.
The Billy Ablass sections of the novel were very compelling too, although some of the scenes that dealt with the cruelty and brutality of the slave trade were uncomfortable to read, as you might expect. Unfortunately though, slavery is part of our history and we can’t ignore the fact that it happened. A lot of real historical figures make an appearance throughout these chapters, such as Francis Drake (who is usually thought of as an Elizabethan hero but was also involved in the slave trade), the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan, the notoriously violent buccaneer L’Ollonais, and John Hawkyns, captain of England’s first slave ship. At the end of the book there’s an interesting note from the author in which, among other things, he explains how much of his portrayal of these characters is based on fact and how much is purely fiction.
As a first novel, I thought The English Monster was very impressive. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have preferred the straightforward historical fiction novel the book had initially seemed to be and that’s why some of my enthusiasm faded slightly as I got further into the story, but there’s no doubt Lloyd Shepherd has come up with something very different and very imaginative here. I’m already looking forward to the sequel, The Poisoned Island.
Thanks to Simon & Schuster for sending me a review copy of this book