The English Monster brings to mind some quintessential 19th century novels and novelists—there’s a little bit of Oscar Wilde, and a little bit of Wilkie Collins, and a little bit of Bram Stoker. With the social criticism, particularly of the justice system, The English Monster might even be likened to Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Perhaps this is why author Lloyd Shepherd decided to subtitle the book The Melancholy Transactions of William Ablass—could anything sound more 19th (or perhaps even 18th) century?
The English Monster is a book with many layers. It’s a murder mystery and a detective story, but it begins as a 16th century adventure tale. The story follows the travels of Billy Ablass as he leaves his love, Kate, to try and earn his fortune as a seaman, not realizing that he will be trafficking slaves. Days before joining the crew of the Jesus of Lübeck, Billy writes Kate and tells her “I know you are frightened by this Journey, my sweet. I am frightened too. But if all goes well, I will come back a Man, having left a Boy. A Man with Prospects and with the Resources to meet them. A Man, in short, with Money.” Billy should have been more careful with what he wished for.
The book alternates between Billy’s story, which covers several hundred years and several continents, and the more modern England of 1811-1812. This section opens with a series of gruesome murders—based on the real life Ratcliffe Highway murders.
At each murder scene, a coin (a clue) is found. Detectives and the British courts struggle to find the killer or killers, but their attempts are less than successful—for several reasons. When Resident Magistrate John Harriott suggests looking for a motive, he is told “The Devil needs no motive… These are the works of the Devil… the undertakings of fierce demons with only one thought—our extermination and our eternal damnation.” Another reason: one suspect was “arrested for the astonishing crime of being an Irish seaman with an eye for the ladies and a fondness for a drink” causing Harriott to state: “When I heard of his arrest, I confess that I rolled my eyes. In recent weeks we have arrested enough Irishmen to form a new regiment.”
The turns of phrase (think ‘damnation’ or ‘God’s teeth’), the long sentences, the strong sense of place, the methodical pacing, the intricacy of the plot—all contribute to the 19th century literature feel of the book. Of course, Shepherd does appear to keep his 21st century audience in mind at times—several scenes are depicted in gory detail—the descriptions of the murder victims for example—“Another crushed skull. Another throat sliced down to the gleaming bone…” or “a man’s throat… severed through to the bone… one thumb… hanging off a hand by a piece of skin”.
Another departure from the 19th century storytelling method: the pirate characters often curse like the sailors they are and occasionally they walk about naked. Certainly these scenes and passages are not graphic compared to many other 21st century stories, but they are also certainly not the type of descriptions (or language) found in most 19th century novels.
Additionally, as Shepherd details in an author’s note, the Ratcliffe murders aren’t the only historical accuracy in the book; the ship Billy sails on and several of the characters, for example, did actually exist. Also adding to the historical flavor of the novel is the theme of British imperialism.
Author and literary critic Edward Said once suggested that any book written by a British (or Irish) author during the 19th century was somehow related to British imperialism, and Shepherd seems to be following this mindset. Much as Bram Stoker’s Dracula encapsulated the British fear that some monstrous foreign entity was going to breach their borders, The English Monster reexamines British imperialism and “what happens to Britain as she gains global power but risks losing her soul”.
And this adds just as much to the mystery element as do the murders. The back of the book claims: “Two moments in England’s rise to empire, separated by centuries, yet connected by a crime that cannot be forgiven”. Who is responsible for the murders is relatively clear before the end of the novel. The larger questions revolve around the connections (and other crimes) and wondering how all the different pieces—spread over several continents and several hundred years—are going to end up coming together so everything makes sense.
And in the end, it does make sense—for audiences who are willing to suspend their disbelief for a moment or two (which is pretty easy to do) and who will not be distracted by the numerous details and jumps between time and place (which is a little harder). It’s an intelligent book meant for an intelligent audience, and for readers who like to be immersed in another time and another place, this book is well worth the effort.