Review by Robert Goodman
At first blush The English Monster comes across as yet another historical criminal procedural. These are crime genre novels set in a historical era and usually full of anachronisms. Often the protagonist is the first of his (or her) kind to start to use a more modern forensic approach to solving some dastardly crime. In this case the year is 1811, the crime, known as the Ratcliff Highway Murders, is a real one involving two families brutally slaughtered in London’s East End and the detective is a former sailor turned River Policeman with a shady past. But The English Monster is much more than this and to label it as crime fiction for the genre trappings described above would be to do it a vast disservice.
The broader agenda of the novel is flagged early on. Interwoven with the 19th Century murder mystery is the story of a young sailor called Billy Ablass back in the 1560s. Billy has left his wife in Oxfordshire to go to sea and make his fortune. He ends up befriending a young Fancis Drake on a trading mission to Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese empires are on the wane and a new global force, an English force, is rising. The ‘trading mission’ turns out to be the Royally endorsed start of the slave trade. The ships scour the west coast of Africa, kidnapping tribes-people to be sold as slaves.
The book takes its time connecting the dots. The stories of the growth of the slave trade and the murder investigation circle around each other in a way that is not immediately obvious. But it is in the collision of these two tales that the thematic heart of The English Monster lies – in the inexorable rise of the British empire on the back of slavery and piracy.
And just in case it is not abundantly clear, one of the characters lays it out in reverie towards the end of the novel. He muses about ‘the birth of a great Triangular Trade: goods carried to Africa, exchanged for slaves, which were in turn exchanged for sugar which were in turn exchanged for British goods, and on and on went the great machine’. The London merchants caught up in the Ratcliff Highway Murders were just small cogs in this machine. But the novel makes clear that the birth of Britain’s nation of shopkeepers rested on the success of this Triangle.
Despite aiming for something deeper, on its surface The English Monster remains an enjoyable confection that effectively brings industrial revolution London and its seedy foundations to life. Lloyd Shepherd effectively manages to mix the facts of a real crime and real larger-than-life characters like magistrate John Harriott and a young Sir Francis Drake with speculation, invention, and a vivid supporting cast.
The English Monster is itself a bit of a monster mash of genres. Part murder mystery, part ghost story, part historical fiction, part thriller. And there may well be a monster worthy of Mary Shelley or Robert Louis-Stevenson at the melancholy heart of The English Monster. But by circling all of these elements around the question of who or what that monster really is, this is an experiment that, in the most part, works.
It’s Alive! : The English Monster or The Melancholy Transactions of William Ablass
Washington Square Press, 2012
Review by Robert Goodman