The English Monster
by Lloyd Shepherd
London, 1811: The twisting streets of Wapping hold many an untold sin. Bounded by the Ratcliffe Highway to the north and the Dock to the south, shameful secrets are largely hidden by the noise of Trade. But two families have fallen victim to foul murder, and a terrified populace calls for justice.
Based on the real-life story of the gruesome Ratcliffe Highway murders, The English Monster takes us on a voyage across centuries. A brilliantly imagined debut from a major new literary voice.
There are two plotlines in this book, one from the 16th century, the other from the 19th century. The first concerns a young man who goes on a sea-faring voyage to earn his fortune. It soon becomes apparent that the treasure they are after is human and the desperate beginnings of the slave trade are gruesomely depicted. I wonder if the English Monster of the title refers not to the actual murderer in the book but the slave trade itself. The second story revolves around the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, in 1811, and their subsequent investigations.
I really enjoyed the first half of this book. The two different storylines worked well alongside each other and the historical fact woven into the fiction was brilliant. Unfortunately the second half of the book just didn’t live up to the promise of the first half. The story of the murder investigation especially, whilst always being a slow-burner, slowed down to a virtual standstill and I found myself skimming entire chapters. The description of the East End of London in the 19th century was superbly done but there was just far too much of it.
One of the problems was trying to show an investigation into horrific murders when there wasn’t actually any investigation to speak of. The police’s tactics in that period were to arrest anybody and everybody and see if they could fit them up. The author tries to show, through his creation of constable Charles Horton, the first stirrings of actual policing of London, but because he alternates between different characters, and there are plenty of them, it doesn’t quite come off. Charles Horton should have been given centre stage.
The story of Billy Ablass and his voyage into the unknown is well worth reading, just for the horrific dealings of the slave trade and how greed and power absolutely destroy people. Lloyd Shepherd brings this tale to life brilliantly and whether the supernatural side of the story is to your liking or not the history should be something everybody should know and understand.
I have struggled to know how many stars to give this book, because it has two good stories in it and it is very well written, but it is also over-written and could have been 100 pages shorter. I am plumping for three stars, I would recommend it but if you feel yourself flagging, just skim, you wont be any the worse for it.