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.