Savage Magic by Lloyd Shepherd

Savage Magic, published in 2014, is Lloyd Shepherd’s third historical mystery to feature Charles Horton of the Thames River Police. The books all stand alone, so if you’ve never come across this series before you could easily read this one first without having read the previous two. Having said that, I found the other two – The English Monster and The Poisoned Island – much stronger and wouldn’t recommend starting here.

After a brief prologue, Savage Magic opens in London in 1814 with Abigail Horton entering Brooke House, a ‘private madhouse for the deranged’. She has made the decision to do this voluntarily as she has been suffering from visions of a wild, savage woman, haunting her dreams and pursuing her through her waking hours. Afraid she is losing her sanity, Abigail hopes she can receive the help she needs at Brooke House, but her husband, Constable Horton, is hurt when he discovers that she has done this without confiding in him first.

Meanwhile, Horton’s superior, the magistrate Aaron Graham, is also concerned about his own wife, who has left him to go and live with her new lover, taking their young daughter with her. Graham has heard some very disturbing rumours about Thorpe Lee House, where his wife and daughter are now living, and he sends Horton off to investigate. Horton has barely left London when a murder takes place, under the strangest of circumstances. A wealthy, aristocratic gentleman is found dead in his own bed, wearing a satyr’s mask on his face. This is only the first in a series of similar murders in which all of the victims are from the same social circle and all disguised by a mask. With Horton gone, Graham is left to investigate the killings himself.

At first, the separate strands of the story feel quite unconnected, with Graham trying to solve the London murders and Horton, miles away, becoming embroiled in accusations of witchcraft and hauntings at Thorpe Lee House. Eventually, everything begins to fall into place and we see how they are linked – and how the key to the entire mystery may lie in the events which occur behind the walls of Brooke House Asylum.

Reading back over what I’ve written above, I know this sounds like the sort of book I would usually enjoy…and yet I was disappointed. It’s possible that if I hadn’t loved Lloyd Shepherd’s first two novels so much, I might have liked this one more, but I’m not sure. The English Monster combined an investigation into the Ratcliffe Highway Murders with a pirate adventure in the Caribbean, while The Poisoned Island featured the story of a Tahitian prince. By comparison, I found this book less exotic, less exciting and lacking the originality of the previous two. It seemed like a much more conventional novel and, although I was pleased to see Abigail given a larger role to play, the asylum storyline is something I feel I’ve read several times before.

I do still like Lloyd Shepherd’s writing (despite the annoying use of present tense) and I love the way he creates atmosphere – the scenes which take place at the supposedly haunted Thorpe Lee House are particularly good and, knowing how Shepherd has used supernatural elements in his other books, I was kept wondering whether there really were witches at work or whether there was a more logical explanation. There was too much switching between one storyline and another, though; there were too many different threads to keep hold of and it took too long for them to start coming together.

The fourth book in the series, The Detective and the Devil, sounds more promising. I haven’t been put off reading it, but I’m not in any hurry either.

The Poisoned Island by Lloyd Shepherd

The Poisoned Island In June 1812 the Solander returns to London from a voyage to Tahiti financed by Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society. The ship is carrying a cargo of rare and exotic plants destined for the Kew Gardens. But why is Banks so interested in one particular specimen? Could there have been another motive behind the voyage?

When one of the Solander’s crew is found dead under suspicious circumstances, the magistrate John Harriott and Constable Charles Horton of the Thames River Police begin to investigate. Soon more murders take place – and when he learns that all of the victims were members of the crew, Horton must find out how the deaths could be connected with the recent trip to Tahiti.

I’ve been looking forward to this since I read Lloyd Shepherd’s first novel, The English Monster, last year. When you loved an author’s debut novel there’s always the worry that their next book might be a disappointment, but that was definitely not a problem here because I thought The Poisoned Island was even better than The English Monster! Both novels are complete stories in themselves and it’s not necessary to read them in order, but they do have a few things in common. They each explore the darker side of the British Empire, trade and colonialism (it seemed clear to me that one of the messages of The Poisoned Island is a warning against the dangers of exploiting a country for its resources), they both involve the Royal Society, and there are also some recurring characters, including Harriott and Horton of the River Police.

It’s interesting to see how Horton uses methods of crime-solving that in 1812 are new and innovative. Instead of merely watching and observing or relying on witness statements, he is actively investigating the crimes, looking for clues, searching for evidence, interviewing suspects and trying to find motives. This arouses the suspicion and dislike of London’s other police constables and magistrates but Harriott has faith in him and can see the value of his detection methods. Horton’s wife, Abigail, makes a few brief appearances in the novel too and I thought she had the potential to be a great character. The fact that Abigail was so underused was the only thing that disappointed me about this book; she’s intelligent, courageous and with her interest in natural science I had expected her to play a bigger part in the story.

Interspersed with the main storyline are some chapters set in Tahiti (or Otaheite as it was known at the time) following the adventures of a young Tahitian prince and showing us what happened to the island when Europeans first arrived bringing guns, alcohol and disease with them. But while The English Monster was a dual time period novel with alternating chapters set in different centuries, The Poisoned Island concentrates on Horton and Harriott’s London with only a few flashbacks to an earlier time. Although the murder mystery forms the central plot, there’s also a lot of historical detail that helps to bring the Regency period to life. And I enjoyed learning about the Kew Gardens, the process of collecting and studying botanical specimens, and the work of Joseph Banks’ librarian, the botanist Robert Brown. I’m hoping there will be more Harriott and Horton novels, but if not I will still look forward to whatever Lloyd Shepherd writes next.

I received a review copy of The Poisoned Island from the publisher

The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd

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