In 1564, starry-eyed young Billy Ablass is in the throes of idealism, blinded to life's risks when he travels from Oxfordshire to edge-of-the-world Plymouth, seeking a way to fund his “pig-farmer” ambitions. Soon Billy has transformed into a hardcore sailor, traveling the globe in search of gold and silver, first to Africa then on to the West Indies on a slave ship called the
While Billy’s search for fortune begins in Plymouth--an Elizabethan center for countless acts of "derring-do, of swashbuckling pirates and greedy smugglers"--the boy looks with hope and inspiration toward the sea, where Spaniards and Portuguese are staking out empires. Meanwhile, two men--short, stout John Harriot, chief magistrate of the of the Thames River Police, and Constable Charles Horton--traverse the streets of the dank landscape of Wapping in the year 1811, searching for a killer.
Called to Ratcliffe Highway between Wapping and Old Grave Lane, where lunatics, thieves, drunks and prostitutes congregate and are more than likely to “chance their arms with a quick smash and grab,” Harriot and Horton investigate the brutal stabbing of respectable shop owner Timothy Marr and his family. Normally seeking answers of a more mercantile nature, both men recognize that the Highway is a lawless place where a new economy is emerging in a valuable stretch of land shaped by grisly Execution Dock.
The situation becomes even more vexing when suspects pour in to all seven of the city's magistrates offices.
A bloody maul was left on the counter of the Marr house, the only concrete evidence in a case that seems to be increasingly burdened by hopelessness and oppressive evil. A sense of impending menace permeates the tale as Shepherd moves between Billy’s voyage across the Atlantic, where he must battle Hawkyns, “a man who would slice you up without hesitation,” to Harriot and Horton’s fanatical search for the Ratcliffe Highway killer.
Vivid, detailed descriptions allow us to see the environs of London and its surrounds. Murky, sinister Wapping is filled with the inequities of class and circumstance. Harriot and Gordon’s first forays into the lodging houses and other dwellings of evil reputation are typical of their exposure to the city and its mysteries, where grim-faced sailors of meager means share dwellings, nursing terrible hangovers and frightful dreams.
Fresh murders take place at Wapping’s King’s Arms, the violence echoing the terrible events at 29 Ratcliffe Highway. Meanwhile, old superstitions come to dominate Billy’s sojourn in Jamaica.
There the energy and invention are characterized by independent traders and their well-oiled transactions between ship captains and plantation owners,
while slaves--tied in chains and bought from Africa--are left washed and greased and gleaming on the quayside.
Although there’s never any confusion either in period or in location, Shepherd’s
de facto division sometimes dilutes the tale, the world of Wapping bloating a healthy chunk of the novel. Sometimes taxing, at other times riveting, The English Monster is mostly an astute study of pride and greed at a time when fundamentalist Christian principles were forced on indigenous races at terrible cost.