The Detective and the Devil | Lloyd Shepherd | 2016 (21 April) | 328p | Simon and Schuster | Review copy | Buy the book
In the centre of the City of London stands the edifice of a mighty ogre, the East India Company, which has a reach that stretches across seas to the far dominions of the British Empire. In 1815, Constable Charles Horton of London’s River Police is called to the house of an East India Company clerk, Benjamin Johnson. Johnson, his wife and daughter lie murdered, almost no distance at all from the scene of an earlier crime that Horton will never be able to forget. Horton’s search of the house reveals that items may have been stolen, the evidence pointing towards the Johnson’s maid but when she too is found dead, Horton can be in no doubt that there are some secrets, Company secrets, that someone, somewhere is determined to keep hidden. Whatever the cost.
And so begins an investigation that affects not just Horton but also his wife Abigail, a woman still recovering from an earlier ordeal who continues to find comfort in her pursuit of natural philosophy. Someone is following Horton, putting himself and Abigail at risk, and the only men who can protect him, such as his mentor the magistrate John Harriott, are reaching the ends of their careers, even their lives. When Horton finds a link between the murders and the British territory of St Helena, a remote Atlantic island of no value to anyone except the East India Company, it’s almost a relief for Horton and Abigail. It is time to make a journey, but who can predict if St Helena will be any safer than the claustrophic stinking streets of London’s East End?
The Detective and the Devil is the fourth novel in Lloyd Shepherd’s series to feature Constable Charles Horton and Abigail. The novel stands alone well and so there is no need to have read the earlier books first but without them it would be harder to understand exactly what the Hortons have endured over the last few years, especially Abigail. These two people have been altered by the past but, even more than that, the cases that Horton has investigated have made him – and us – re-evaluate the very shape of the natural world, a world that is being rapidly digested by a British Empire that has no understanding at all of what it is consuming. Spurred on by the discoveries of great sea voyages and colonists, scientific investigation is at its height but some of what is discovered is hard to comprehend. There’s a malignancy as nature itself seems to fight back against greedy conquest. A conquest that thrives on the monster of empire – slavery. Reading the earlier books makes the events of The Detective and Devil easier to accept on levels other than the straightforward. But if you haven’t read them, then you can still heartily enjoy The Detective and the Devil and hopefully it will inspire you to go back to the beginning, particularly as this, I believe, may be the last.
Lloyd Shepherd’s novels aren’t like any others I can think of. They take another time and place and add to it a mythology so organic and heady that it grows through the books. Although the stories deal with scientists and detectives, the investigation of murders and the discovery of new lands, peoples and plants, there is an earthiness and timelessness to this world that is actually intoxicating. Although at times it feels like anything is possible, it still has to happen for a reason. There is a moral code here that rules and, in some ways, Horton is its enforcer. Abigail’s position is more complicated, made even more so as there are moments when she fears she hovers on the edge of madness. Horror exists on the verge of this world, watching.
In 1815 England is under attack from France and Napoleon is viewed as the monster above and beyond anything else that preys on the English. As we remember the fate of Napoleon, it seems fitting that this novel’s focus is the very distant St Helena. Much of The Detective and the Devil, though, is set in London, providing such a vivid portrait of a city divided by class and money. Abigail has the charm to move between the classes, Horton doesn’t, but he is a useful tool. This is a dirty, stinking place and it clashes with the fresh air, sea breezes and seclusion of St Helena where the final third of the book is set. But the island is far from paradise – slavery has spoiled it. I enjoyed the depiction of St Helena enormously. It’s a place where good and evil can run rampant. It’s beautifully evoked, its danger and beauty – its spell – explored.
The Detective and the Devil, just like each of the other three books, is utterly engrossing. Lloyd Shepherd’s imagination is as powerful as his writing. I read the novel in one glorious sitting. I was transported from my armchair to another time and place, sometimes frightening and somehow magical, in which I was so happy to be lost.