March 23, 2012 10:03 pm

Shock docks

A murder case in London’s East End is given a fantastical spin

The English Monster, by Lloyd Shepherd, Simon & Schuster, RRP£12.99, 416 pages

 

The impact of the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders – two linked multiple killings – spread far beyond London’s East End to vex Parliament and the nation with notions that a new degeneracy had taken hold in England.

A culprit was quickly seized but the guilt of hapless sailor John Williams has long been doubted. PD James and TA Critchley co-wrote an account of the case in The Maul and the Pear Tree, a true-crime classic. This gripping novel puts a fantastical spin on the old tale of terror.

Shepherd openly acknowledges his debt to James and Critchley, and also nods in the direction of Peter Ackroyd; the murders took place almost in the shadow of Hawksmoor’s imposing church, St George in the East.

Although Shepherd is no Ackroyd, his yarn is rich in atmosphere, taking us into smoky riverside inns, candlelit panelled parlours and out into the rough streets around London’s docks.

Following the James/Critchley template, Shepherd reveals the inept policing of the Regency era: one character even claims that the police are merely there to prevent crimes being committed rather than track down the malefactors afterwards.

Three flawed, interesting men are at the heart of the hunt: waterman-constable Charles Horton, who possesses uncanny powers of observation but a shameful past; river magistrate John Harriott, a grand old man working outside his own jurisdiction; and his friend, Bow Street magistrate and ageing dandy Aaron Graham.

But that’s only half of the narrative. Running alongside is the picaresque story of one William Ablass, aka Long Billy, who goes to sea with Francis Drake and John Hawkins in 1585 and proves to have enduring powers of longevity.

Shepherd moves a shade mechanically between the two parallel stories in alternating chapters. How is the buccaneer Long Billy connected to the Ratcliffe Highway murders? The answer introduces a supernatural element but the power of the novel lies in its symbolism.

It’s no coincidence that the murders were committed hard by the London docks; the real “English monster” here is our brutal colonial and maritime past.

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