For me, this was a novel of rare delight – mysterious, original, with a cast of convincing characters, mostly historical, and a plot that keeps you guessing almost until the end. It is a follow-up to Shepherd’s previous book, The English Monster, which I am looking forward to reading
Shepherd has a personal writing style which takes a certain amount of getting used to – he writes almost entirely in the present tense, with short chapters which dodge about a good deal in location and time, but once you have got used to this, and know who the diverse characters are, it is plain sailing.
The year is 1812, when George III, whom everyone assumes is mad, has had to retire from his duties and his eldest son George, fat, greedy and inordinately vain, has become Prince Regent. A ship, the Solander, has just docked at Rotherhithe after a long voyage to the exotic island of Tahiti. It has been commissioned by the great botanist, plant collector and President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, to bring back a cargo of plants, many completely unknown to these shores, to be nurtured in the Great Stove – in other words the hothouse – at Kew.
John Harriott, Magistrate of the Thames River Police, has been ordered to keep an eye on the security of the ship and its cargo. Hardly has the ship arrived and the crew gone ashore when they begin to be found horribly murdered in their lodgings. They are found, despite the horrific manner of their deaths, with smiles on their faces.
Harriott appoints Charles Horton, his astute young constable, to be in charge of the investigation. The first crewman to die is Samuel Ransome, an unpopular member of the crew, who has been strangled, but nevertheless died smiling. His belongings have been ransacked, but the bag containing his pay is untouched.
Horton interviews the crew on board the Solander, including their charismatic captain, Hopkins. The botanic cargo has been unloaded and taken to Kew where Sir Joseph, with the aid of his secretary, a Scottish botanist, Robert Brown, oversees its transplanting into suitable environments, taking particular interest in one seedling, which is placed in the warmth of the Great Stove.
Two more murders are actually carried out while Horton and his wife Abigail are walking in the street below. The crime is discovered by the Solander’s chaplain, a strange young man of mixed English and Tahitian parentage. This time the victims’ throats have been slashed – but they are still smiling.
The plotline enters the realms of fantasy as the seedling in the Great Stove becomes a large tree in a matter of days and Robert Brown begins to suspect that Sir Joseph Banks has some ulterior motive behind its import.
The interplay between the characters, all of whom, including Horton, have something to hide, is absorbing and the age of huge leaps in geographic and scientific discovery in which it is set is brilliantly drawn.