TagLloyd Shepherd

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.

Simon & Schuster bloggers’ event, 29 Feb 2012

Yesterday, those fine folks at Simon & Schuster opened their doors to a group of bloggers for a panel discussion with four authors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen four more different (and yet similar – in, for example, the sense of craft underlying their work that came across from all) writers together on the same panel. Here’s who they were:

Rebecca Chance

I’ll read most sorts of fiction, but it is fair to say that Rebecca Chance writes the kind of books that aren’t for me. She was fabulous in the discussion, though.

Penny Hancock

The other writers on the panel were all first-time novelists. Penny Hancock’s book is a psychological thriller about a middle-aged woman who becomes infatuated with a teenage boy, to the point that she holds him captive in her garage. I read about half of Tideline on the train home, and it’s intriguing so far.

Lloyd Shepherd

Lloyd Shepherd piqued my interest in his historical mystery The English Monster when he talked about being influenced by horror/speculative fiction; though his mention of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy made me a little wary – the proof will be in the reading.

Benjamin Wood

The Bellwether Revivals was a book I’d already pegged as one to read; if it hadn’t been, I suspect that hearing Benjamin Wood speak here would have encouraged me to pick it up. Comparisons with Donna Tartt, and a synopsis mentioning a brilliant student conducting medical experiments with Baroque music, sound promising. It’s a very nicely designed volume, too.

After the panel came an opportunity to mingle… and browse a few books. As well as the Hancock, Shepherd, and Wood books, I earmarked copies of Edward Hogan’s The Hunger Trace (about which some of my fellow-bloggers have been very enthusiastic); Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (a hotly-tipped title which falls squarely at the mainstream-speculative intersection that interests me); and The Humorist by Russell Kane (who I’m hoping will, like Mark Watson, prove to be a comedian with a flair for fiction).

Thanks to all at S&S, and the writers, for a fine event!

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