The year is 1811. On the streets of Wapping, a family have been brutally slaughtered in their home. There is no motive and the police on land have no interest in investigations. However the watermen who patrol the river have other ideas. Jump back in time to 1564 and a ship is setting sail to the coast of Africa, embarking on a mission that will change history, and not for the better.
The English Monster paints a murky picture of Britain's maritime history, there's a real sense of how the streets of around London's burgeoning docklands would have felt at the time. There are lots of historical elements woven into the fiction and there is a pretty comprehensive author's note to explain what is more fact than fiction and vice versa, just in case you keep putting the book down to google names and events. It is not straight historical fiction so history purists may want to back away now. It's hard to explain this novel without spoilers but it will help to keep an open mind that something other may be going on. I think the author has hinted enough to this fact in interviews that it will not be too big of a spoiler on my shoulders.
Based on the real life Ratcliffe Highway murders, it also highlights the huge difference between the early days of policing and what we know now. The city-based police did not care at all about solving crimes and were most likely to arrest criminals caught in the act or if they conveniently fell at their feet. Don't expect a riveting historical police procedure because, in all seriousness, they were no procedures. This is itself is a fascinating facet of the novel.
However not all the story is set in 1811 and it has what I like to call the Cloud Atlas Effect, in which the story jumps in time and place without any obvious connections, other than the maritime element. Unlike Cloud Atlas, it all does come together in the end but I felt it slowed down the pace. I would be getting into one plot-line and all of a sudden would have to reacquaint myself with another set of characters. And there are quite a lot of characters, so I never felt I got to know any of them very well. Perhaps that is the pitfall of historical fiction, there is only so much you can make up about real people, especially those whose lives are well documented. It would be fictional justice for John Hawkyns to fall overboard and be eaten by sharks but history means we (I had to look him up) know he goes on to live a life of praise. Boo hiss.
It occurred to me that the real English Monster of the title may not be the 19th century murderer but instead, the slave trade, sanctioned by the crown and responsible for so much suffering. Some of the scenes may be hard to read but unfortunately they are based on history that many would prefer to brush under the carpet.
Lloyd Shepherd has a journalistic and digital background which may explain the use of parentheses throughout the text. I am not used to these in fiction (but I do use them myself (quite a lot)) and they seem a little modern compared to the language used but I am no means an expert on the history of punctuation.
I had a bit of an immature giggle at the naked gunfight (piqued your interest have I?) and pendulous cocks but mostly it's a dark and sinister tale. I think it would make a great book group choice, there is plenty to discuss and you wouldn't have to tiptoe round spoilers either. Whilst it is a great standalone read it hopefully marks the start of a series which I look forward to seeing more of in the future.
The English Monster is Lloyd Shepherd's debut novel and is published by Simon & Schuster in hardback and ebook editions. If you choose to go for the hardback, take a peek under the dust cover for shiny red goodness (and a creepy illustration). Thanks go to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review.