During the early nineteenth century London’s docklands were rapidly developing, as the Thames provided the key route for trade into the city.
Alongside this growth in commerce came a rise in crime, as the East End became the dwelling place for desperate individuals with little on their minds except the pursuit of money. It is this historical backdrop that provides the setting for Lloyd Shepherd’s debut novel, as he retells the gruesome story of the Ratcliffe Highway murders.
There is a powerful sense of the dark history of London in Shepherd’s depiction of these violent crimes; Wapping is an almost lawless area where the city’s underworld thrives in amongst the dark alleyways and alehouses. London’s police force is also chaotic and any attempt to assert the authority of the law is futile. In the end it is only Charles Horton and John Harriot, Wapping’s ‘Waterman Constables’, who are capable of using the ‘modern’ process of detection to sniff out the shocking truth.
The English Monster alternates chapters between this mystery and another equally horrific historical tale: the voyage of the first English slaving ship to Africa in the sixteenth century. The journey is told through the experiences of Billy Ablass, a young lad from Oxford, come to make his fortune onboard the ship bound for ‘black gold’.
Although centuries apart, there are many similarities to draw between the underworld of eighteenth century London and the secrets of England’s sixteenth century voyages of exploration, and Shepherd tells both stories in a fantastically cinematic style. The novel’s genre is often indefinable – veering from history to fantasy, from detective fiction to pirate adventure but each event is enriched with impressively vivid detail.
But it isn't just the writing style that is impressive - as the book progresses the two storylines converge to present a cleverly constructed narrative twist. This unexpected turn leads to a gripping conclusion in the irresistible final chapters of the novel.