Shepherd's devilishly clever debut isn't just a swashbuckler, nor is it just an historic thriller or a police procedural or even an allegory with a soupçon of magical realism. No. It's an elegant admixture of several genres and a smashing feat of derring-do that roller coasters between the 16th and 19th centuries. And although there is a satisfying conclusion, it is less important than the ride. With all its twists and turns, there is a singular free fall that clinches the story, making the whole thing exceptional.
In 1564, young Billy Ablass is bound for Plymouth, there to make his fortune, hoping to return to his beloved wife Kate with enough money to set themselves up on a fine farm. Maybe to raise a family. But from the moment he steps aboard the Jesus of Lübeck with the blackguard John Hawkyns, we and Billy become awash in the gritty romance of high seas adventurers who are beguiled by risk, danger, and the promise of wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Greed makes the men unimaginably ruthless.
Plunge ahead a couple hundred years to a working class neighborhood on the Thames and someone - the eponymous monster? - has savagely murdered a merchant and his family. Community panic heightens following news of a second inexplicable massacre. The murders all but dumbfound local police who are more accustomed to crimes of a mercantile nature. But there is no evidence in either case of theft, fraud or extortion. Thus we follow the eager Constable Charles Horton as he pioneers the neonate art of crime detection. And our interest never flags as the aptly named Shepherd, er, shepherds us from buccaneers ravaging islands in the south seas to the grisly slaughter of merchants in London's seedy backstreets and beyond. Tension and perplexity build as the reader collects clues, heedful of red herrings sprinkled throughout the narrative.
What these seemingly dissociated story arcs have in common will not be prised from my lips. Suffice it to say though that Shepherd's tale expands upon a theme as old as the Bible - see Mark 8:36 - that the wages of unfettered avarice and ambition can indeed be carved out of one's soul. And this roller coaster ride contains as thrilling a rush as the best suspense novels.
This review is from the July 25, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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