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The English Monster
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 20 October 2014
here 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.
***
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 12 April 2012
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.

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.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
The year is 1811. On the streets of Wapping, a family have been brutally slaughtered in their home. There is no motive and the police on land have no interest in investigations. However the watermen who patrol the river have other ideas. Jump back in time to 1564 and a ship is setting sail to the coast of Africa, embarking on a mission that will change history, and not for the better.

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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 16 February 2015
I really wanted to like this novel, it sounded so promising and very much 'my thing' given its setting and themes. It started well, the first couple of chapters were beautifully written and conjured up London scenes and characters, but that early promise quickly petered out. I found the two narratives disjointed and the endless movement backwards and forwards in time distracting and irritating. It was clear the author had done plenty of research - all too clear, as parts of the story sounded as if this was simply being paraphrased by characters - but the scope of the story was too ambitious and came at the price of characterisation and coherence. I'm afraid I gave up more than halfway into the book as it didn't engage me and I never felt inclined to pick it up. Perhaps, had I persisted, it would have picked up or concluded so spectacularly it would have been worth the effort, but I didn't enjoy what I read of it so decided to cut my losses. I feel the author was trying to do too much too soon in his debut novel, perhaps subsequent works might be worth a try.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 9 January 2013
The English Monster is a rare type of book, because it is one that I will recommend to people without me being entirely sure how satisfied I was with it overall. Let me explain. As reading any random plot synopsis will tell you, this is a two thread story, with one part following the investigation into brutal murders carried out in Wapping in the 19th century, and the being set (initially) in the 16th century with a distinctly pirate flavour to it.

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.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 30 October 2012
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.
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This is a strange book - doubly historical as we follow an early 19th century murder invesigation and a young lad, Billy Ablass, setting off in 1564 for the Americas as a cabin boy, dreaming of fortune. Gradually the two stories start to converge.

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.
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on 14 March 2014
Dealing both with some famous London murders in 1811 and with the adventures of a young farmer in the 16th century 'the English Monster' is a clever tale of adventure and revenge. Real events and people are mixed with totally invented facts and characters and this strange mixture works really well. I was at first more interested by the 1811 part of the tale, the uncovering of clues concerning the murders of the Marr family but once Billy Ablass, after having joined a Plymouth ship looking to make his fortune, finds himself on the Florida shore face to face with some dying Native Americans and cursed by the old Indian woman, things take a strange turn and his story becomes utterly compelling. What's more the 1811 murders end up being the weakest part of the story as it takes too long to get anywhere. There is also quite a bit of long-winded descriptions and dialogues between Constable Waterman Horton, his Superior Harriot and the Shadwell magistrates and sometimes the tale 's pace is so reduced that it grows slightly tedious. That's why I have deducted one point for this novel which is not far from excellent.
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I agree with Crazie Jamie; this book was almost brilliant, but it didn't quite work. However, I'd still recommend it as, despite its slowness and often depressing themes, I was captivated by the story. I found the characters well fleshed out and believable, and I was able to imagine people and scenes with ease. The supernatural events, however, were obviously less believable (which is mainly why the story failed to work, for me).

The prose and dialogue was, in my limited understanding of the period, entirely appropriate for that time and I didn't notice anything out of place, as one often does in historical fiction.

It's certainly not an easy read, partly because things happen fairly slowly and partly because the subject matter isn't at all pleasant. I learned a lot about the slave trade and feel the book was worth reading for that alone. I agree the title probably refers to that particularly shameful part of our history as well as to the murderer.

A very good debut. I'd certainly read this author again.

4 Stars
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 30 November 2012
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.
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