The English Monster, Or, The Melancholy Transactions of William Ablass
Before the advent of Saucy Jack, the Ratcliffe Highway murders were the most brutal to occur in London’s East End. Four individuals are viciously bludgeoned and stabbed in a draper’s shop – one a three-month-old baby. A week later, three more meet a similar fate at the King’s Arms Tavern. Though outside his jurisdiction, Charles Horton of the Thames River Police investigates at the behest of magistrate John Harriott. The Shadwell Police conduct their own investigation; pressured by politicians and the panicked masses, they arrest a seaman who suspiciously suicides while in custody. Case closed. Or is it?
The major characters are real persons, a great deal of the story is already extant through primary accounts, and this is where the book is strongest — the parts drawn directly from history. When Shepherd’s imagination takes over, the story falters. The tale runs along parallel plotlines, the 1811 murders and the 16th-century New World adventures of William Ablass. The slave trade plays an incongruous role, and there’s a supernatural element that feels abrupt and out of place. The jumping of the alternating chapters is distracting: one minute the novel is a Regency police procedural, the next it’s Francis Drake and privateering on the high seas. The dialogue is occasionally weak: a French buccaneer points a musket at a foe and asks, “Do you feel lucky?” (Why, yes, Monsieur Eastwood, I do.) Ablass, robbed of motivation by the supernatural element, makes for a detached antagonist; the rest of the characterization is stronger and more engaging, especially Harriott and Horton. Shepherd also has a detailed grasp of historical London, Wapping in particular. This adds atmosphere, but occasionally devolves into superfluous research recitation.
The verdict: this debut novel is uneven, but its strengths ultimately overcome its weaknesses to make it worth the reader’s while.