I have extremely mixed feelings about this book. While the concept was intriguing and the story itself was peppered with instances of truly brilliant prose, I struggled to get through it.
The story jumps back and forth between the appropriately long saga of ‘Long Billy’ Ablass’ life and the surprisingly dull investigation of the Ratcliffe Highway murders. Ablass’ story is certainly more engaging, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It also jumps from first person to third and back again, and resorts to zeroing in on utterly random characters in order to get the story told – which leaves the whole thing feeling disjointed and slightly schizophrenic.
The parallel plotline of the Wapping murder investigation is more consistent (though the whole thing is written in a different tense, for God knows what reason), but, frankly, boring. I found myself dreading the switch from Ablass back to Harriott and Constable Horton, because I felt like their side of the story wasn’t progressing at all and I was reading the same scene over and over again.
It feels like the bulk of the book’s action happens in the last thirty pages, which is a problem for two reasons – (a) a book shouldn’t be 400 pages long if all the significant action can be condensed into 50 pages or less and (b) trying to squash the whole plot into the last tenth of the book is bound to leave some loose ends untied. I still don’t fully understand how Harriot, Horton and company figured out who the bad guy was, but by the time I finished this I was so sick of it I didn’t bother going back to sort it out.
Other small complaints include the author’s tendency towards repetition and redundancy, and the utter ridiculousness of a three-part title (The English Monster. Or, the Melancholy Transactions of Willam Ablass. A Novel. For God’s sake, just call it The English Monster and stop being a pretentious prig). Shepherd’s also prone to using the same word multiple times in the same sentence, or penning phrases that are simply foolish (example, on page 231 he mentions a “little flotilla of boats.” A flotilla is, by definition, a group of boats).
All that being said, Shepherd does have a few surprisingly lucid moments. I’ve posted one of my favorites below, for the sake of ending on a good note.
“Dark tales girdled the tall young man:how he’d tortured women in the service of the dread L’Ollonais; how he’d thrown babies from ramparts; how he and L’Ollonais had lived together in the woods above Tortuga, joined in some Satanic blasphemy of marriage, sacrificing children and sheep and smearing themselves in blood beneath a red Caribbean moon.”