OR: The Detective and the Devil

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 22nd of July last year:-

Perhaps it’s the looming shadow cast by the Tory leadership election and the (real or not) threat of a post-Brexit move back to the 1950s, but I’m feeling rather historical at the moment, positively ancient in fact, which is my cue to give some consideration to THE DETECTIVE AND THE DEVIL (Simon & Schuster tpb , 328pp, £7.99) by Lloyd Shepherd, the fourth volume in an ongoing series chronicling the adventures of a detective answering to the name Charles Horton.

It’s London in 1815 and Constable Horton of the River Police is called in to investigate the horrific murder of a family that bears a remarkable resemblance to an earlier series of killings, one for which the culprit is thought dead. As the case progresses, Horton finds links to the powerful East India Company and the Elizabethan alchemist John Dee. There are attempts by those with influence to hinder his investigation, but a group of powerful men are on Horton’s side and, when his position as a policeman becomes untenable, they finance an expedition by Horton and his wife Abigail to the island of St. Helena. It is here that both ‘a killer who seems to be the very Devil’ and the solution to a great mystery await the detective.

With its River Police protagonist and his former nurse wife, this book can’t help but bring to mind Anne Perry’s William Monk series of Victorian detective novels (of which I’ve read quite a few), albeit those are post-Crimean, while Horton’s adventures take place more than forty years earlier, with George III on the throne and Napoleonic discontent still rumbling away on the continent as a backdrop. Horton and Abigail don’t have quite as easy going a relationship as Monk and Hester, with Horton rather too concerned to protect Abigail and her having to assert herself forcefully on occasion, even though she is obviously the better educated and well-read of the two. This adds a certain frisson to the relationship and the stories, as does Abigail’s history of mental illness and psychiatric interest in her personality “disorder”, which points to interesting future developments.

Intercut with the main story are scenes from the time of Doctor Dee and in the years since that add depth and lay the foundation to the story’s principle plot conceit, along the way involving an element of misdirection to keep the detective and reader guessing. Shepherd is excellent at capturing both the sense of Georgian London, a bustling metropolis with striking contrasts between the rich and poor, and the wildness and isolation of St. Helena, bringing them both to vivid life, with scenes that both shock and delight, squalor and elegance, civilisation and nature red in tooth and claw, sitting side by side on the page.

And he gives us a memorable villain in the form of a man as urbane and well educated as he is completely ruthless and with a murderous disposition, one who so easily fills the shoes of the Devil to Horton’s detective, evil incarnate in human form. A Ripper long before Jack was even a twinkle in his grandfather’s eye.

The other characters, such as crotchety old magistrate Harriott and his on the make rival Markland, street urchin Rat and the manipulative Mina Baxter, author Charles Lamb and East India functionary Putnam, are all well-drawn and convincing. They stand on their own two feet, distinct as individuals, but at the same time exemplary embodiments of personality types with which we will all be familiar.

At heart of the book is a theme that is timeless, the ways in which the rich and powerful seek to game life in their favour, those who already have more than enough wanting to possess even more. And given the importance to the story of what is, in essence, a multinational company, one that makes its own rules independent of nation states, there is something of a modern feel to the narrative’s subtext.

I would describe the writing as workmanlike rather than elegant or memorable, and the story’s flow on occasion is interrupted by gaps in the narrative that are brushed over simply with a few sentences, though to be fair it is hard to see how else Shepherd could have managed to move things along without turning it into a bore fest or losing credibility in the pacing.

I enjoyed the book rather more than not, and found it a work that should appeal to lovers of historical, detective, and horror fiction, and it required little effort to get a grip on the book as a standalone volume, though undoubtedly those familiar with the three previous entries in the series will have an easier time of things and possible derive more from the story.

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