18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Atmospheric, gruesome and gripping
Lloyd Shepherd's debut, The English Monster, begins with a puzzle: six pirates are hanged from the gallows by a river; five of them are dead, but one of them is only pretending to be dead.
It is an enticing hook - macabre and gory - and sets the tone for a yarn which is part pirate adventure, part detective story, part historical fiction and part horror...
Published 20 months ago by katiewardwriter
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
At first I struggled to get into this book, but once I grasped the characters it takes you on a journey which is quite enjoyable, it serves to remind us that manipulation is an ancient trait.
Published 6 months ago by Leona Taylor
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Atmospheric, gruesome and gripping,
It is an enticing hook - macabre and gory - and sets the tone for a yarn which is part pirate adventure, part detective story, part historical fiction and part horror.
The novel is broadly set over two time periods, with two narratives.
In 1564 (during the reign of Queen Elizabeth) a flotilla of ships, captained by John Hawkyns, is on a clandestine trade mission; his crew includes Billy Ablass, a young man seeking his fortune.
In `the present' (1811), the local officials in Shadwell and Wapping bungle the investigation into a set of apparently motiveless killings, which will go down in history as the Ratcliffe Highway murders. The jaded magistrate, John Harriott, undertakes to catch the perpetrator, with the assistance of Waterman-Constable Charles Horton.
John Hawkyns's voyage, a real historical event, was the first official attempt to exploit what Shepherd chillingly refers to as `African treasure'. Rumours fly above and below decks as Billy Abless pieces together the purpose of their grizzly assignment. It will spawn a global trade, generating fabulous wealth for some - and unimaginable suffering for a great many others. The riches seem to be guaranteed; the question becomes whether Billy will return to his beloved wife, Kate, with his body and soul still intact?
Meanwhile, the 19th century murders take place in a filthy maritime metropolis on the Thames. Trade (with a capital `T') is the lifeblood of the riverside community now living in fear. Law and Order, by comparison, is still in its infancy. There are no established procedures to run an effective murder investigation, only the intuition of Waterman-Constable Charles Horton, a character with a shady past and an undignified fascination with the facts that is ahead of his time. It is he who discovers the killer's calling card, a silver piece of eight.
Shepherd's imagination is dark and disconcerting. He has knitted together two distinct episodes from British history (or rather, English history) to make a ghoulish exploration of greed, bloodlust and perceived entitlement. Though historical, this novel is very much a post-Credit Crunch work; it is a story of how the mindless pursuit of wealth - at the expense of people - is ugly, immoral and devastating.
The corruption of young Billy Ablass is more successfully drawn than the Regency murder mystery. Occasionally, Shepherd is distracted by his admiration of the historical figure of John Harriott, when he has actually created a compelling new detective in Charles Horton who deserves more time centre stage.
Despite this, The English Monster is atmospheric, gruesome and gripping. With Shepherd as their quartermaster, readers who enjoyed `Perfume' by Patrick Suskind will find plenty on this voyage to appal and intrigue them.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A different perspective on the Ratcliffe Highway murders,
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?) 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.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An oustandingly original debut,
The genius behind this book is in the premise. These two stories are clearly connected, and the connection is pretty much handed to the reader about a third of the way through the book. But even then a distinct layer of mystery remains, and as the book progresses the reader essentially watches as to jigsaw pieces (being the two plot lines) edge closer together. The individuals stories are interesting, and the book did hold my attention with little difficulty.
The problem is that I'm not sure whether it actually worked by the end. The book is steeped in historical fiction but also possesses a clear supernatural edge. Yet the mystery has no supernatural element, and the murders fundamentally could be drawn from any crime novel (albeit they did actually happen and are clearly shocking in themselves). As a result I just didn't feel like the detective story ended up clicking quite right with the far more fantastical pirate story, as skilfully as the plot was constructed. For all the entertainment value that the book provided to me as I was reading it, when I put it down I just didn't quite feel as satisfied as I should have been.
Yet it is difficult to criticise Shepherd with any degree of force for this, because as a debut novel The English Monster is an ambitious breath of fresh air, and is the sort of book that should be encouraged. As such I recommend it, even if I can't quite shake the fact that I wasn't wholly satisfied by it when all was said and done.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting,
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well-researched but overwritten,
This review is from: The English Monster (Paperback)I had really high hopes for this book, and after reading the opening chapters, I thought I was going to really enjoy it. Alas, half way through, I found myself skim reading in places and desperate to reach the end so I could read something else.
The story has promise - it is essentially two slow-moving plot-lines, which come together despite the 300 year gap between them. One concerns itself with the horrific Ratcliffe Highway murders, the other is a seafaring adventure rooted in the slave trade. The thread that links them together suspends belief, which is never a bad thing in fiction, but I felt was not explained enough to make it credible in the confines of my imagination. As other reviewers have said, the Ratcliffe Highway plot is the slower of the two. I cannot fault Lloyd Shepherd's use of fact in fiction - the historical accuracy is astounding, and it was great to learn more about Wapping in this period (an area I am not overly familiar with), and also to see recognisable figures such as Francis Drake and Henry Morgan pop up along the course of the novel. I think what lets the book down is the lack of characterisation. I just didn't care about any of the characters in the book and wasn't really interested in what would happen to them. Shepherd couldn't decide whether to focus on Harriott or Horton in the detective part of the story, and I personally think he should have developed Horton more instead of jumping all over the place. Billy Ablass, the protagonist of the pirate story, is the only character who was in any way believable, and even that got a bit lost later in the book. My overriding feeling is that The English Monster has been well researched but overwritten, as if the facts bogged down the imagination of the author during the writing process.
There are clearly a lot of people who thought this book was brilliant, so please don't be put off by my review. It isn't a bad book, it just wasn't for me.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Just didn't grip me,
This review is from: The English Monster (Paperback)I thought this looked like it would be a pretty good combination of spookiness and detective story but for me at least it just didn't work. It's reasonably well written and there are lots of interesting historical themes which weave their way through the book but it didn't grab me. I realise I'm out of step with other reviewers here, most of whom seemed to really enjoy it. He's certainly done his research and the period is well created; it's not that it's a bad book - it just didn't engage me in the way I'd hoped.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not a page turner for me,
This review is from: The English Monster (Paperback)I have given this book three stars because I can certainly appreciate what an achievement it is. However, perhaps because I have had to make detailed studies of literature in the past, I require a good book for relaxation which is easier to read than this one. I enjoyed the sections set during the time of the murders and the investigation and also the characterisation during the voyages. However, I am afraid I found I could skip parts of Billy's time at sea because it didn't seem to make much difference either way.
4.0 out of 5 stars Really Good,
4.0 out of 5 stars Doubly historical,
As is often the case with dual narratives, the reader prefers one to the other. In my case, I found the seafaring gripping, especially as Ablass's fate takes a strange twist whilst on a landing party. The atmosphere feels real, exciting as new lands are discovered. There is real peril as the English and Spanish traders jockey for position in creating a world empire - and a real human cost in terms of slaves and indigenous people.
Alas, the murder investigations - of the real life Ratcliffe Highway murders - feels a bit like a poor man's Jack The Ripper. There is fog; there are alleyways, but in Wapping rather than Shoreditch. That's not to say it isn't good in parts, but there are too many characters, some of whom serve no obvious purpose, and it all ends up terribly confusing. Which is a pity, because when the stories join up we could do with all the clarity we can get - it's a complicated thing going on. It's difficult to say more without giving the game away.
Some of the imagery leaves a deep impression. The secrets in the Attic of the Royal Society are really horrific. The menace at Sheerness as a ship lies berthed with no identification. The hanging men on Wapping quay. It really is good stuff and the reader does want to know what happens. It's just there is this slight frustration that it was so close to brilliance but didn't quite make it.
Oh, and one tip. If you have the hardcover version, do resist the temptation to remove the dust jacket - the picture underneath tells you whodunnit. Perhaps.
4.0 out of 5 stars Historical Murder Mystery,
Based on the Ratcliffe Highway murders and well researched the book moves in time between the 1500 and 1800s .
From the gripping first chapter it is a real page turner and if you like your murder mysteries with a touch of the supernatural you will certainly enjoy this. Fascinating insights into the move from policing to detection. I suspect we will see one of the main protagonists again and I for one am looking forward to following the exploits of the Inspector in future novels.
Well written, researched and conjuring up a Docklands of not so long ago, but virtually unrecognisable now, this is an atmospheric and enjoyable read.
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The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd (Paperback - 27 Sep 2012)