REVIEW: THE ENGLISH MONSTER or THE MELANCHOLY TRANSACTIONS OF WILLIAM ABLASS By Lloyd Shepherd
This is an extremely ambitious but flawed novel which never quite manages to deliver. Based on the real life 1811 Ratcliffe Highway Murders, it begins in June 1585 when a young man arrives in Plymouth. Billy Ablass is ambitious and likable at the start but takes a seriously wrong turn in his choice of career. In the other narrative thread (London, 1811) Charles Horton of the Thames River Police is faced with the task of solving a foul murder. One of the novel’s strong points is the period detail but the author’s extensive research shows and there is too much of it, perhaps the product of a journalistic background.
The jumps from 1585 to 1811 and back again are jarring, and the two strands make the first 100 pages very confusing. Were all the people who wrote such glowing reviews at the start of the book and on its back cover reading the same novel? Personally, I have always hated the present tense in a novel. It is a literary conceit which seems so false, especially when the next chapter shifts to past tense and then present again. Consistency would have reduced the confusion to a more manageable level. The sudden jump at the end of book one when Billy is cursed – from third person to first person POV is particularly jarring, especially when book two begins and we are back in 1811 and the present tense.
The discovery of a mysterious silver coin (a piece of eight) at the first murder scene hints at the two narrative strands finally coming together by page 125 and then they separate again leaving the reader none the wiser. Another gruesome murder is discovered and another silver coin. By the next page, we are catapulted back to 1603 and a newly dead Queen Bess but by then I had stopped caring, finally abandoning ship on page 210.
Shepherd creates some powerful images and pulls no punches, uncompromising in his description of England’s part in the slave trade, but even the period detail and well drawn characters cannot save The English Monster from itself.