CategoryShepherd Lloyd

Books in brief: early March

Lloyd Shepherd, The Poisoned Island (2013). Another Regency mystery for magistrate John Harriott and constable Charles Horton of the Thames river police, last seen in The English Monster. This time they’re investigating the strange deaths of crewmembers the Solander, recently returned from Tahiti, while an unidentified tree brought back on the ship grows rampant at Kew. As in the previous novel, there is an engaging subtext of transition and the tensions it brings – East London becoming a hub for trade; ideas of evidence-gathering changing the way crimes are investigated. The Poisoned Island is particularly alive to the fact that expeditions such as the Solander’s had a complex range of consequences, both positive and negative. Shepherd’s series is becoming something quite distinctive.

Birgit Vanderbeke, The Mussel Feast (1990/2013). Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. The new Peirene Press novella depicts a revolution in microcosm. Shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall, a family sits down to welcome the father home from his business trip with a large pot of mussels for dinner. But the preparation is a lot of work for the mother, considering that she doesn’t like mussels herself – and especially considering that the father doesn’t even come home. Especially in the beginning, Vanderbeke uses repetition to emphasise how the family have become trapped in the same thought patterns. As the book progresses, we learn more of the father’s hypocrisy and the hold he has over the rest of his household – then we start to see them break away. It’s a wonderfully controlled piece of writing.

Chris Paling, A Town by the Sea (2005). A man wakes up on the beach, and wanders through a strange town whose inhabitants he can barely understand, as we gradually piece together something of his history. The set-up is intriguing, but it becomes frustratingly difficult to arrive at a satisfactory interpretation (even an uncertain one) of what’s happening. My best guess is that our man is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, and his journey in the book is an externalised working-through of his feelings of dislocation from life. The novel can be nicely atmospheric, but ultimately I think it’s rather too nebulous.

Jonathan Pinnock, Dot Dash (2012). This is a collection of flash fiction (‘dots’) and longer stories (‘dashes’). What brings them together so well is Pinnock’s wry wit, his knack for sharp twists and rueful endings. The dots are marvellously concentrated bursts of language – not just punchlines, but stories reduced to their essence in a few sentences. Among the dashes, we find a harrowing tale of memory loss told in reverse; a street artist taking poetic revenge on a corporate boss; a girl who tries to bring Cairo to her dying grandmother’s bedroom; and more. Lovely stuff.

James Wheatley, Magnificent Joe (2013). In north-east England, Jim works as a labourer, his plans for university having been cut short when he was arrested as a teenager after a fight went too far. Now he’s working with his old school friends and living in his old village, with no apparent prospect of change. But Jim has also become friends with Joe, a fifty-year-old learning- disabled man – Jim gives Joe a helping hand, and Joe reminds Jim that there’s more to life than his immediate circle. The events of the novel will disrupt both of their lives profoundly: seeing events from Jim’s viewpoint perhaps dilutes some of the impact of what happens to Joe, but Wheatley paints an interesting portrait of a stable situation disintegrating despite the best attempts to hold it together. Magnificent Joe is its author’s first novel, and leaves me wondering where he might go next.

Book notes: Shepherd and Lightfoot

Lloyd Shepherd, The English Monster (2012)

(NB. I can’t say what I want to say about this book without revealing a key plot development from about a third in; bear that in mind if you read on.)

Lloyd Shepherd’s debut novel takes as its foundation theRatcliffe Highwaymurders, a pair of multiple killings which took place near theLondonarea of Wapping in December 1811. As Shepherd presents them, these gruesome crimes are beyond the comprehension of most people; but John Harriott, magistrate of the Thames River Police, is determined that the culprit will be brought to justice. His watchman-constable, Charles Horton, has an unorthodox technique for fighting crime: the systematic investigation of evidence – ‘detection’, as Harriott calls it.

A parallel storyline begins in 1564, when we join young Billy Ablass as he’s about to set sail fromPlymouthin search of fortune. But the ship he has joined is on a mission to gather slaves, and its voyages lead Billy ultimately toFlorida, where he becomes the victim of a curse – never to die, but always to carry the burden of what he and his crewmates have done, a burden which will rot him from the inside.

As a crime story, The English Monster fairly rattles along; but, in the end, the mystery element comes to seem almost beside the point. What interests me most about the novel is its subtext, which is all about the the emerging modern world. The two narrative threads highlight key historical junctures and the tensions around them: a more ‘scientific’ approach to policing is emerging, but is largely viewed with suspicion; the Wapping docks are growing, but not everyone will experience the economic benefits; a world is being built on the trade of human beings. Against this background, Charles Horton and Billy Ablass could be seen as emblematic opposites: Horton as the positive force for progress, Ablass as the negative aspects of human nature which persist and hold us back.

I understand that Shepherd is planning more novels featuring The English Monster’s characters; the pace and subtext of this first one leave me very keen to see where he goes next.

Frederick Lightfoot, My Name Is E (2011)

Judith Salt, Abigail Sempie and Grace Powers are three deaf girls all born in the same Cumbrian village in 1945. Though unrelated, they meet each other as young children and come to think of themselves as ‘sisters’. Judith’s and Grace’s Grade II deafness is acquired, and they have some ability to speak and hear; but Abby is Grade III deaf from birth, and can utter only the single syllable ‘E’. It’s apparent from the beginning that something happened to Abby, because Judith (our narrator) returned to her home village aged twenty-five, intent on avenging her. Judith tells the intertwined tales of that time, her childhood, and her current life at the age of sixty.

I’m ambivalent about My Name Is E. On the one hand, Frederick Lightfoot creates a vivid portrait of the village community and its precarious social terrain; on the other, I find his prose style a little too dry at times. The mysteries of Abby’s fate and what the twenty-five-year old Judith with do are strong narrative hooks, though the resolution of that latter thread is less effective. I find myself remaining on the fence as far as this book goes.

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