Lloyd Shepherd – The English Monster

I've had this on my Kindle shelf a long while. It's a curious novel of two stories: in Elizabethan England, young Billy Ablass goes to sea to make his fortune alongside an equally young Francis Drake; and in 1811, London is rocked by the vicious murders of a household in Shadwell (the historical Ratcliff Highway murders). Billy's innocent eyes are opened to the grim realities of colonial exploitation; while Constable Horton adopts the then-novel approach of investigating a crime rather than finding a scapegoat.

For much of the novel it is unclear what these tales have to do with one another, but each are engrossing enough. Shepherd largely succeeds in spinning a good yarn (or indeed two) with intriguing characters – this is an easy enough read that's well enough written.

However, I found the final collision of the two storylines somewhat dissatisfying. Having spent much time with constable Horton admiring his investigative ambitions, it was a shame he was undermined by the PRS simply handing over the killer's identity on a plate. It rendered his efforts meaningless and with replaced a satisfying outcome with some fumbling violence in the dark. Similarly, the fate of Billy Ablass was a little underwhelming – the dire warnings of the Florida tribe seemed to imply much worse.

There are other missed opportunities: Francis Drake is little more than an unnecessary bit of flair, as is Henry Morgan, and the business with the Sheerness mutiny felt like it might have a more philosophical purpose than the rather blunt plot instrument it ultimately became.

I think this last point is my main beef with the book. It's an interesting glimpse into the Elizabethan slave trade and the pre-Peel policing of London, but I felt the author flirted with a more thoughtful piece on humanity, morality and mortality than he served up.

Edit: I didn't have any context when I picked this up, so it seemed to over-promise and under-deliver. Now I know it's the first in a string of slightly paranormal mysteries investigated by Constable Horton and Magistrate Harriott, I find I'm less judgmental. As an example of paranormal potboiler crime (rather than a genre-flirting literary outing), it was entertaining – although my reservations about the climax remain intact and it doesn't gain extra stars. However, I thought I should note that I would consider reading those further instalments 🙂