I go into every book I read with a sense of hope that it will transport me to another place and time with characters that make me look twice, make me uncomfortable, or even make me want to smile and laugh with joy. There are few of the joyful characters in The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd, but there is much that made me uncomfortable and made me look twice, even starting at unusual sounds and shadows at the corner of my vision.
In 1494, Billy Ablass, a week since married, went to Wapping to talk his way onto a ship where he could make his fortune, at least enough to buy some pigs and prime land in his home of Oxfordshire.
In 1811, a servant, Margaret, goes on two separate errands for her employers, Mr. and Mrs. Marr, and comes back to find the house locked and all the lights out. She hears someone inside and the baby's cries suddenly cut off. She pounds on the door, drawing a crowd, and a neighbor gets into the house from the back and discovers murder most foul. Both Marrs, their new baby, and the shop boy have been murdered and the weapon left clotted with blood and hair, brains splattering the walls and floors. In the basement, the baby's throat was slashed.
From these two events there can be no connection, not with 300 years between them, and yet there is a connection, one that grows with time and Shepherd's dark and razor sharp prose that drew me into these disparate tales and into the lives of the newly formed River Police.
Waterman Constable Charles Horton, with his own past to keep secret, is a different kind of police officer. He investigates, a word unknown until he began his inquiries into the nature of the crimes in and around the port, and even into the murder of the Marrs and their shop boy in spite of his lack of jurisdiction. The river police do not solve crimes on land. Magistrate Harriot believes that his duty lies wherever he finds crime and sets Horton to looking into the matter, though it cost him everything he has worked for and prizes.
What Shepherd does with clarity and the magic of prose that transports these horrific events into something wonderful is weave threads of various colors and kinds into a new cloth that presages the modern era and lays the foundation for the Britain and Scotland Yard to come. The English Monster is no simple police procedural, nor is it history overlaid with fantasy. This is a new kind of history more fantastical and palpably real that rises above the common historical novel into a realm all its own.
I foresee more novels featuring Harriot and Horton where mystery and marvel combine to create a crime solving duo as memorable and Holmes and Watson.