Shepherd, Lloyd - 'The Poisoned Island'
It is June in the year 1812, and a ship named the "Solander" pulls into the London Thames after a very long voyage from the Caribbean island of Tahiti. Tahiti has always had a huge attraction for the British, decades after the first voyage of Captain Cook and tales of the exotic attractions of the island natives and the rich cults and strange fruits, flora and fauna. This most recent voyage has been financed by Sir Joseph Banks the famous naturalist who dreams of restocking Kew Gardens with the exotic plants brought from the South Seas.
Within days of the ship docking some of the crew are found in their lodgings ashore dead with their throats slashed and their sea chests ransacked, but with their faces frozen into terrible smiles. John Harriott, magistrate of the Thames River Police has been asked to take a personal interest in the security of the ship and its cargo. Harriott puts Constable Charles Horton in charge of the investigation. Horton is very interested in the new science of deduction and tries to preserve the scenes of the crimes intact and as untainted as possible to aid in the discovery of the perpetrators.
This multi-layered story in interlaced with life on Tahiti in respect of the difficulty of a native to obtain a passage to England as he has an important quest to make there. His back-story is told and also that of certain native chiefs and their difficulty in keeping the beautiful native girls away from the charms of the sailors. Previous voyages from Europe had introduced deadly diseases such as syphilis, dysentery, alcoholism and other previously unknown illnesses to the island.
Constable Charles Horton and Magistrate Harriott have problems of jurisdiction to contest with colleagues in neighbouring areas, as whilst Harriott and the river police have some control, the locations where the dead bodies of the seamen were discovered means another police authority has some control. Horton's fine reputation, however, as a proven detective in a previous case has proceeded him and he has little difficulty in getting agreement for his system of detection and control of the crime scene.
The juxtaposition of real and imaginary people in this story adds to its charm and makes for a really dynamic piece of writing. I enjoyed this story even more than his previous one, THE ENGLISH MONSTER, which was also a fine piece of writing. The character of Charles Horton is a fascinating and really attractive protagonist with lots of skeletons in his closet. The book was expertly researched and full of excellent period detail. The plot with its dramatic twists and turns and very vivid, knowledgeable and widely diverse scenes kept me transfixed until the last page. This was one of the most atmospheric historical thrillers that I've read this year and I'm already looking forward to his next one which I hope won't be too long in the future. Well recommended.
Terry Halligan, England