Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Poisoned Island (2013) by Lloyd Shepherd

Buoyed by my enjoyment of The Age of Wonder, I spent Christmas in the grip of a fixation with the Georgian period. As I’ve said before, it’s not a period I’ve been traditionally particularly interested in. It’s the Victorian age that still rules my heart, don’t worry about that. But while the Georgians might have lacked fashion sense and pseudo-modern technology, they sure knew how to conquer other countries; and as such, they built the model of Empire that the whole world was soon to tremble to during the Victorian age.
Their Empire-building may have been ramshackle and occasionally haphazard compared to what came after, but they set the scene for it. So to that extent, I’ve taken an interest in them. I spotted the just-released Poisoned Island at a WHSmith’s at Gatwick airport on the way home for Christmas and thought that it looked an appropriate read considering my new area of interest.

The Poisoned Island is a novel that takes the idea of Empire as one of its central themes. It’s essentially a detective novel set in London in 1812, as a ship called the Solander pulls into the docks of the East End. The book is a sequel; the second featuring the proto-detective Charles Horton of the River Police as its hero. It being so early in the development of modern policing, Horton is rather ahead of his time in his insistence on such niceties as motives and evidence. When sailors from the Solander start dropping dead about East London, Horton sets to finding the killer using his box of new detecting tricks. Before you can say The Madness of King George, Horton is traipsing around Wapping, Rotherhide, and other places in the east of London that I pass through quite frequently on the DLR.

The book touches on quite a few themes that I found interesting. It was enlightening, for example, to meet Sir Joseph Banks again, so soon after his appearance as the hero of an early chapter in The Age of Wonder, and see him shown in a different and less flattering light. In that tome, Banks had been a young, open-minded adventurer with an interest in everything, and who made the most of his trip to the paradise of Tahiti. He absorbed the Tahitian culture and made the most of the willing women of the island. In The Poisoned Island, Banks has become the elder statesman of British science, large of girth and conservative in his philosophy. His south-sea adventuring as a young man is here treated with quite a good deal of cynicism; the possibility of rape, both literal and figurative, is toyed with continuously. And just as the destruction of the Tahitian way of life by the Europeans has resulted in something poisonous coming back to haunt London, Banks’ past amorous doings too come back to demand payment.

I enjoyed Banks as a character in this book; I liked his relationship with his head gardener and fellow scientist/explorer Brown too. Any time the book took a turn into their world of early 19th-century botany, I perked up quite a bit. But then, this is a world I am currently exploring myself for the first time, and all the characters and discoveries they reference seem like new friends to me. Fish in a barrel, I guess. I am located squarely in the target audience for this stuff, no doubt about it.

As for the detecting stuff, well, it’s still not for me. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t care for crime fiction, not even Sherlock Holmes, despite Conan Doyle being one of my favourite authors. And whenever the book lapses into whodunit territory, I lose interest. In fairness, there aren’t many ‘crime-only’ sections. Almost none of the book is devoid of historical interest, what with this version of Georgian London being overrun by corrupt adventurers, famous scientists and half-breed aboriginals. There’s always something interesting happening. It’s just that the central plot – a mystery about someone killing other people – failed to grab me, as is usually the case with crime fiction, and as a result the book occasionally felt like a bit of a chore to me. I guess for me, this book is a bitter pill thoroughly coated in very enticing sweet stuff.

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