Melding real life and fiction is a delicate balancing act, but one that Lloyd Shepherd has successfully pulled off in three previous historical thrillers. This is his fourth to feature the indefatigable Constable Charles Horton of London’s River Police.
It’s 1815, and Horton is called upon to investigate the brutal slayings of an East India Company clerk, his wife and daughter. The murders bear more than a passing resemblance to a previous case solved by Horton – but the perpetrator of those is cold in his grave. So what’s afoot?
As the constable valiantly tries to investigate, he finds his enquiries stalled at every end and turn by the company and its employees. What are they trying to hide? Horton is determined to find out, but how can a lowly constable break through the seemingly impenetrable wall of secrecy?
Fans will know that Horton is a man of resilience and tenacity who will stop at nothing to get his man. If, like me, you are only just making his acquaintance, you’ll soon learn the truth of that summation. Horton also has a secret weapon, in the shape of his wife, Abigail. Don’t be fooled by the initial little woman persona. She is a lady of intelligence and resourcefulness and she and her husband make a formidable team.
This is a book split over two timelines and two very different settings. It all begins in 1585, when a mysterious band of Dutchmen target the huge, and hugely eclectic, library of renowned academic, John Dee – a man also renowned as a necromancer and sorcerer, who is said to hold a mysterious, powerful manuscript among the many thousands of volumes that grace his enormous collection of works. Leading the night-time expedition to Dee’s home in Mortlake, in West London is Jacobus Aakster. It soon becomes clear that he is a man with his own agenda.
Centuries later, Jacobus’s legacy lives on, far away from the dirty, crime-ridden streets of London. The two storylines are destined to come together in dramatic fashion as Horton’s investigations take him from his home city to the stark contrasts of St Helena. Luckily, Abigail is in tow too and the pair begin exploring the island and its possibilities, using the guise of botanists and under the patronage of none other than the Royal Society. Not bad for a simple river policeman, eh?
Shepherd is adept at creating wholly believable descriptions of 19th century London and its environs, although his descriptions of St Helena felt flimsy and less sure-footed. In Horton and his wife he has created a fine double act of dabbling detectives, but when the story strays away from hard won facts and into the fanciful it lost its narrative thread.
There’s a neat juxtaposition between real life characters and happenings and that succulent twist of artistic licence that gives the tale added spice, but on occasion it stretches a little too far for someone who prefers their reading on the more down-to-earth side. The Detective and the Devil is a book that will appeal to lovers of historical crime fiction who are not adverse to a side order of the supernatural.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 3 Stars