Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd

review by Maryom

The English Monster is a novel woven out of two seemingly unrelated historical events - the horrific Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 and the 16th century voyage of a royally-supported slave-trading ship.

1811 - a killer stalks the streets of Wapping, striking seemingly at random when people think they are safe in their homes.... While others blunder around, arresting all the usual suspects, John Harriott, magistrate of the River Police Office, puts his faith in his senior officer Charles Horton and his new-fangled ideas of detection.

1564 - another kind of monster is on the loose. Capt Jack Hawkyns has set sail, sponsored by the Queen, in search of 'black gold', ie Africans, to kidnap and sell as slaves. Young Billy Ablass has joined his crew in an attempt to make his fortune but the events that happen will change his life forever...

What piqued my interest about this novel was its central point of the Ratcliffe Highway murders. Now till 3 weeks ago, I'd never heard of them but then they 'guest starred' in ITV's Whitechapel and I wondered what someone else would make of the same starting material - as it turns out, something completely different! Unfortunately, Whitechapel had prepared me for how events unfolded which took some of the edge off Shepherd's story.

The English Monster is an amazing mix of fact, fiction and supernatural. It's a little difficult to get into as at first it's not apparent how the two story lines are linked - but persevere, it's worth the effort.

The strength of the book lies in bringing these murky events of the past to life through atmospheric descriptions and vivid characterisations. I loved the visualisation of Francis Drake as a man always in the right place at the right time but never getting his hands dirty with anything unpleasant or troublesome that might count against him in the future. (I've no idea how accurate this may be as outside his naval and bowls-playing exploits, my knowledge of him rests on Blackadder!)
Wapping almost counts as a character in its own right - with old crowded twisting streets, newer more spacious ones and over and above all the looming docks and ships' masts. But the hero of the book is Horton with his dodgy past and strange new methods of policing - examining the evidence and interviewing witnesses.

A book I thoroughly enjoyed and I hope we haven't seen the last of Horton - the last page seemed to be setting the stage for more 'detection'.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Genre - adult, crime, historical fiction,

Buy The English Monster from Amazon

Other reviews; Milo's Rambles

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