The Poisoned Island.
Simon & Schuster.
What a wonderful device is Mr Google’s search engine, harvesting information from around the world in response to any given keyword. I must admit that, after a decade of use, I find I have developed a level of expectation regarding what Google is going to find in response to certain keywords. A few weeks ago a search for the two words Cook Solander produced the usual mix of academic publications and articles, but amongst the list of books was one that I had not heard of before, The Poisoned Island.
Normally, I have sufficient non-fiction books to keep me busy, but on reading some of the reviews of The Poisoned Island I found that it involved real characters from history.
These included Sir Joseph Banks, his secretary Robert Brown, William Bligh, and even Peter Heywood, one of the Bounty mutineers. Those who have read about Banks and his contemporaries will have developed their own images of these people.
I wanted to see how the author, Lloyd Shepherd, had interpreted the characters, so I bought a copy of his book, and I was not disappointed.
The story takes place in London, in June 1812. A ship, the aptly named Solander, has anchored in the Thames near Wapping. She has just returned from a voyage to Tahiti to collect specimens of the island’s exotic flora for the botanic gardens at Kew. It comes as no surprise to learn that the voyage had been planned and financed by Sir Joseph Banks, who still harboured memories of his visit to Tahiti 40 years previously, aboard Endeavour.
Within days of Solander mooring in the Thames, one of her company is found dead in his lodgings. He had been brutally killed, and his sea-chest ransacked. However, despite his horrific death, his face was wreathed in a broad smile! What at first seems the casual murder of a seaman takes on a more sinister aspect as, one by one, more of Solander’s men meet the same grisly fate.
As Banks had asked the Thames River Police to ensure the security of the ship and its cargo of plants, the force feels a responsibility to look into the deaths of the ship’s men. Here we are introduced to Constable Charles Horton, who is tasked with investigating the series of deaths in search for a common link that might lead to the murderer.
It is via Constable Horton that the reader experiences the sights, sounds and smells of Georgian London. The author transports the reader from the stench of a decrepit boarding house in Wapping to the beauty and fragrance of Kew Gardens in summer. Constable Horton is even invited to join the members of the Royal Society at one of their dinners at The Cheshire Cheese, in Fleet Street.
There are no technological innovations to assist Constable Horton in his investigations. He relies on his experience, his observations, and leg work, to garner his evidence. Everything points to some mysterious cargo being brought back to the Thames on board Solander.
This story is well-crafted, showing the author has undertaken considerable research into his characters and locations. He has skilfully woven together real people from history with some invented for the story.
Like so many of today’s books, the chapters alternate between locations and times, as the author provides a back-story to the events that took place on Tahiti before Solander embarked for home.
The story starts slowly, as the author needs time to sets the various scenes and introduce the main characters. But the pace soon quickens once the murder investigations get underway. The book then changes into a veritable “page turner”, and once I was on the home straight I could not put it down! Even at this pace, the author still has the ingenuity to introduce several dramatic twists and turns to keep the reader guessing the identity of the murderer. I will not say any more about the story as I do not wish to spoil the plot for any who wish to read this book.
I did appreciate several pages of notes at the end of the book in which the author provides an historical analysis of his book, identifying the real people and places, and distinguishing them from those which were the product of his imagination.
The book is the second novel written by Lloyd Shepherd. He has found his own niche in the market of historical detective stories. Both books are set in the years around 1812 and feature the investigations of Constable Horton.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 26, volume 40, number 2 (2017).