London, 1811: The twisting streets of Wapping hold many an untold sin. Bounded by the Ratcliffe Highway to the north and the Dock to the south, shameful secrets are largely hidden by the noise of Trade. But two families have fallen victim to foul murder, and a terrified populace calls for justice.
Based on the real-life story of the gruesome Ratcliffe Highway murders, The English Monster takes us on a voyage across centuries. A brilliantly imagined debut from a major new literary voice.
©2012 Lloyd Shepherd (P)2012 W F Howes Ltd
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"what a mix"
The mixture of the two stories which started so far apart and gradually blended into one and then morphed into a story that could be going on still was electrifying. I started knowing nothing about piracy, slavery or 19th century murder, now this book has had me walking the Ratcliffe highway and preparing lessons for 12 year olds` on piracy, the slave trade and poverty on the Thames. fascinating and rich, like an old brocade uniform hidden in an oak chest.
"Our murky 'past'"
It is difficult to emphasise how truly great this book is. The author has managed to pull together a detailed and honest history of England spanning centuries but also to include real life characters in a fantastical tale of corruption and horror. The story is about the notorious Ratcliffe Highway Murders. The characters he brings into the tale are people who really did exist at the time. It is very similar in tone to the brilliant 'Dan Leno and The Limehouse Golem' although I should emphase that 'The English Monster' is a very original work in its own right.
I would like to say a word about the East London setting. As a very young Northern jobseeker, I lived a stone's throw from the Highway in the late 70's. At first I was disappointed not to be living in the glamorous London I always envisaged but very quickly I grew to appreciate the strange character of the area. My neighbours were ex merchant seaman stranded without a ship and living in flats stuffed full of odd and sometimes frightening objects from around the world. I could walk around the last vestiges of the old London Docks before they were heavily developed into a mini New York. All the time I felt I was living somewhere that was not only old but actually ancient and still alive. Wapping still smelled of spices although the old warehouses were being turned into art galleries for the enlightened middle classes. There was not yet any sign of the new News International monster that was about to be erected, but plenty of evidence of the old slave trade and the existing sweatshops churning out clothing manufactured by poor exploited Bengali immigrants forced to work in lethal fire traps.
I lived on a street where one of Jack the Ripper's victims met her ghastly end. It was grim watching the tourists poking but I can never pretend I didn't share their fascination. This books brilliantly captures the murkiness of this area and the fact we remain on a continuous cycle of being prepared to do almost anything and overlook any inconvenient truths in order to achieve our own desires.
The English Monster is a fantastic creation but as you find out in the epilogue, much of it is true.
"Give it time"
A bit of a funny book this one. Imagine something like a Dickens novel where the process of introducing the main characters in the tale are introduced slowly but without the wit and lightness of touch that characterises Dickens and you have most of the first part of this novel. It jumps around in time from the 1811 Rafcliffe Highway murders back to the 16th century, back to 1811, back in time again to the late 16th century and so on, with the flashbacks getting nearer to the 1811 murders. However it is quite confusing and very ponderous.
But stick with it, but the last half of the book is great as the main players in the story are drawn together into a climax that is suspenseful and frightening in equal measure. Overall it is a good listen but you will need to grit your teeth a little to get through the beginning.
"An allegory on the banks of the Thames"
For those looking for an historic police procedural, that finally puts to rest an age-old mystery, this novel will be something of a disappointment. In order to pursue the allegory of the ‘English Monster’ the writer not only takes many liberties with the facts, but contrives a plot that of necessity invokes black magic and assigns, almost as an afterthought, the vaguest of motives to the ‘Ratcliffe Highway murders’. This is because the writer has much bigger game in his sights, a target that has often been pursued, but like the ‘Long Billy’ in the story, will never quite be done to death. For all that, it is a very good, well researched book and uncomfortably thought-provoking . To what extent progeny of the ‘English Monster’ should suffer vicarious guilt, or other equally comfortable souls should rage about injustice they can only suffer by proxy, is for the reader to judge. The facts of the matter will never be, in any sense, black and white. If it were not for the rolling news we might be tempted to say: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. But unfortunately the overriding impression is that of ‘Plus ça change.’ Anyway, it’s still a very fine book.
"And now the epilogue..."
Having found this to be a reasonably interesting, but not outstanding narrative and struggled with the central presumption of the plot - which is not at all my cup of tea - I really only came to a full appreciation of the craftsmanship of this novel when reading the epilogue. With further research, what really becomes apparent is how little of this is fiction, how much is fact and the audacious job that has been done in pulling all the disparate pieces of this story together.
The literal drawing in of the two plot lines works really well, the placing of the action in the Caribbean and London is faultless but by far the most enjoyable aspect of Lloyd Shepherd’s work is the cast of characters.
It has to be said that the author seems to have a weather-eye for a film or TV adaptation - let’s see if that comes - and the plot line seems a little compromised in the final drawing together. That said, I loved the characterisations of John Hawkins, Francis Drake and Henry Morgan and all the Potosi Pieces of Eight nonsense as well as being totally taken in by the ‘Long’ Billy Ablass conflation. A grown up Boy’s Own Pirate Adventure - but as a grown up boy what better recommendation could there be.....haaa haaa!!
"Boring! Doesn't deserve the hype."
I don't understand what all the fuss is about. OK, so I am less than half way through (5 hours out of 12) and maybe I have yet to discover something wonderful about this book. I've weighed up the odds of starting to love it later against saving myself another 7 hours of boredom, and come down squarely on the side of saving myself. I can't judge the part in the 16th/17th century (whenever, I never quite caught the dates) but I know 19th century fiction well and this part just doesn't ring true. The way people behave and interact, the dialogue, none of it makes me suspend disbelief. I regularly listen to audiobooks on long drives to keep my mind active while I drive, but this one had me stopping for strong coffee to stop me falling asleep. Just one proviso: maybe I didn't like it because it's rather a "boy's book". Perhaps a male reader might be more interested in the portrayal of a sailor's life on the high seas. And no pesky emotions getting in the way of the story. In fact, there are virtually no female characters in the book at all!
"Life and death in London"
Possibly Shepherd but preferably not Crossley, whose narration is full of wrong inflections. He reads as if he doesn't care about the book or like it. His reading in the past has annoyed me equally. He does "voices" quite well, but that's just not enough. He detracts from the content of the book, which is a pity
I loved the descriptions of London in times past. The author clearly has done great research and produces atmospheric descriptions. The plot is overly contrived and fantastical and one wonders what the point is. It is a book that doesn't seem to lead anywhere.
Wrong inflections - something condescending and unserious about his way of reading. Seems to trivialise the narrative
On balance no.
"Not even Wapping could save it"
Being a Londoner quite familiar with the riverfront, I was really excited to jump into a book centered on Wapping -- particularly given the fairly good reviews it has. However, and unfortunately, I just could never get into this one. Now, I will admit that I've given up after a few chapters, but from as far as I have gotten (no real spoilers here) the book is following two story lines, one centered on wapping and the other a rather lame pirate tale. The writing didn't pull me along, nor did the story. Shame...
"Entertaining, but not exceptional"
I enjoyed this to a moderate extent: the scene setting of the murders to begin was great, and many parts of the far-flung travel afterwards atmospheric, but I thought the central premise (no spoilers!) was a bit of a cheat to be honest. Would prefer the author, whose very promising debut it is, to keep credibility stretched to the maximum and not beyond. I'll be interested in his next effort though.
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