The Solander docks in London laden with botanical specimens gathered for Tahiti. Sponsored by Sir Joseph Banks, the voyage was a successful endeavour to bring back the island’s hidden treasures to Kew and the Royal Society. When Charles Horton of the Thames river police stumbles upon a murder scene, he is soon to discover the connection between it, and the ship his magistrate, John Harriott, welcomed home just the day before; for the victim is a member of the crew and his death appears more than a simple robbery. When more of the crew are found dead, their expressions grinning horribly, Horton must find the truths of the voyage and once again avoid stepping on the toes of the city police.
Although The Poisoned Island follows on from The English Monster, the book works perfectly as a standalone novel. In fact, not knowing the twist of the first book might even be a benefit as I got an idea of what was going early on. I didn’t get it spot on though so there are still surprises and the mystery is only a small part of what is an excellent read with wonderfully evocative descriptions.
The streets of the London of 1812 are brought alive and one thing I love about these books are how the places are so familiar even if they have changed somewhat. There is one chapter set in the Cheshire Cheese pub on Fleet Street, which has always been my mental blueprint for urban inns in historical fiction. For those that don’t know, this pub is still in operation today and has not been modernised much (although much cleaner than in those days). Of course, the maritime history of Britain is at the forefront, from the crew to the ship to the implications of exploration and its exploitation.
It also puts into context the collections at Kew; now a pleasant break from city life but before was a huge exercise in collecting, cataloguing and keeping alive plants from around the world. We probably imagine botany to be fairly harmless but the British Empire wreaked havoc in its pursuits. The story is littered with mentions of the disease Europeans spread throughout the world. The story starts with a rape of an island woman and goes on to highlight how many were taken advantage of.
In contrast, Abigail Horton, who plays a minor role, is a fantastic modern woman for the time. She comes across more intelligent than her husband and is fascinated with the emerging science. She is quietly supportive of his efforts to adopt a different way of policing and she breathes a little bit of compassion into what otherwise could be an incredibly dark tale. It has previously been established that she is unable to have children which allows her to not be the dutiful housewife so many women of her standing would have been.
The Poisoned Island is published by Simon & Schuster and is out now in hardback and ebook formats. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.