THE POISONED ISLAND is Lloyd Shepherd’s second novel (following THE ENGLISH MONSTER) set in 19th-century Great Britain and featuring Thames River Police Chief Charles Horton and his magistrate, John Harriott. Both combine history and fiction to create a stylish crime story steeped in its period and location.
On a gray morning in 1812, the British ship Solander returns from its journey to the far-off island of Otaheite (or Tahiti, as it was known at that time) and docks in London with a cargo full of breadfruit trees and other plants and seeds. These are all quickly transported to the greenhouses and laboratories of the London Royal Society, whose president financed the voyage.
Shortly after the ship returns, members of its crew are found dead, possibly murdered, under strange circumstances. The case is brought to the attention of the Thames River Police, and Horton begins an investigation of the deaths under the watchful eye and administration of his magistrate, Harriott. It isn’t long before Horton discovers similarities in the deaths, which lead him back to Solander’s exotic cargo.
Meanwhile, one of the plants brought back to London is cultivated and shows amazing but somewhat frightening changes. The Royal Society librarian who observes these changes is eager to report them, but is ordered to keep his observations secret. Eventually the Society librarian and Horton himself learn that there was more behind the expedition of the Solander than reported in the public records.
Readers will immediately note similarities between the voyage of the Solander and that of the historical, ill-fated HMS Bounty. Indeed, Shepherd often refers to the records of Capt. Bligh both from his Bounty and later expeditions. These voyages and the results of the various plants they transported to England are the historical basis of Shepherd’s tale.
Shepherd’s prose style effectively recreates the 19th-century ambience. That is, it is impressively detailed but in no hurry to reveal this information. After the opening, chapters begin with some backstory revelations of the character involved before then bringing the reader back to the present and continuing with the main narrative.
This deliberately elongated, almost leisurely style — reminiscent of Charles Dickens — means that the narrative pace is also protracted. This can be challenging to the uninitiated, especially as more characters and plot details are introduced, but once accustomed to the style, it wonderfully enhances the reading experience. This is also how Shepherd subtly introduces the real mission of the Solander expedition and how he also injects a subtheme of the unanticipated effects of British Empire’s desire to explore and dominate the new world in the flashback chapters of the Tahitian exploration.
THE POISONED ISLAND is not a quick read, but one to begin and return to when it’s time to unwind, breath a little slower, and enjoy the evocative recreation of a long-passed time and place, while following an equally classical-styled mystery. That may sound like an awfully tall order, but rest assured Shepherd delivers it with very satisfying results. —Alan Cranis