The English Monster is a most intriguing and unusual novel. As it begins, one might suppose that we are in the grip of historical fiction, albeit divided into two different periods of English history, but, as the story proceeds, it soon becomes very apparent that we are caught in the spell of something else.
The novel has a focus in Wapping, an area of London that has been reclaimed from the river and its marshes. It opens in the 1560s, with pirates hung by their necks beside the river. Meanwhile, young Billy Ablass sets out from his Cotswold home to make a fortune to bring home to his girl bride Kate. He enlists with John Hawkyns and begins a series of adventures at sea mostly capturing, transporting and selling slaves, with his friend Francis Drake by his side. In tandem is another story set in London in 1811 which centres upon a series of brutal murders – the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. The murderer is chased by old magistrate John Harriott and policeman Charles Horton, a man with a past. The two time periods and stories alternate, seemingly distinct, separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, but, as the chapters go by, the gap begins to narrow.
The English Monster has many layers to it. It is as fertile and earthy as the land on which London grows. It is a seafaring adventure, full of exotic mysteries and wonders, even fantastical elements that shock and amuse. It is also a history of early policing. Here we see the first detectives investigating a real-life series of crimes that must have terrified the people of Wapping and Shadwell. It is also, though, a tale of great horror, rich with symbolism and metaphor. At its heart is the beast on which London and England were built – the slave trade. This English monster stalks the novel, bringing real life and familiar characters such as Drake, Hawkyns and Henry Morgan, together with demons.
This is a novel steeped in atmosphere, hugely evocative of both the exotic, foreign and open as well as the dirty, domestic and secret. Whether Lloyd Shepherd is writing about the stews of London or the beaches of Florida or the Ivory Coast, there is a wonderful mix of the grimy and the fabulous. We follow it through the experiences of the young Billy Ablass and through his eyes we see the damage that slavery can do to the soul, on a personal level as well as on the grandest.
The novel does change its shape as the monster tightens its grip and so it is full of surprises. The English Monster presents a powerful and chilling portrait of one of the most all-pervasive and despicable demons in English history – the slave trade. It does its subject justice, proving to be an excellent, atmospheric and extremely clever read. That The English Monster is a debut novel is also astonishing. Lloyd Shepherd is an author to watch. The English Monster frightened me more than any other novel I read in 2012 and is one of the books I’ll remember the most.