Summertime Mini Review #5
First: The cover art. It is perfectly muddy and atmospheric. (And you know The Worm has problems with a LOT of cover art.) The subtitle is great, too. It lends itself to the tone of the novel. Second: This historical fiction, based on real crimes, is not about Jack the Ripper. Let me repeat that – it is not about Jack the Ripper. And thank all that is Holy and beneficent for that.
That is not to say The English Monster doesn’t have the same foreboding, capes-and-fog vibe that Ripper stories have. There is something familiar about this story, and I don’t think it is only the sound of a cane tapping down a slick cobblestone lane. It had been haunting me during the first chapters of this book… And then it hit me like a maul to the skull – Caleb Carr! That’s it. If you are a fan of his books then this one will certainly appeal to you. And if you don’t know him, but you enjoy this book, drop everything and get yourself a copy of The Alienist. Like right now. (The Angel of Darkness is also good but nothing compares to The Alienist.) In that novel, we get to see the evolution of the American criminal profiler. In this one, it is the evolution of the British detective.
But hold on – that is only one of the tales in this odd mash-up of historical fiction. The second story, set some 250 or so years prior, is about piracy, commerce, slave trading, and empire. The most apparent ties between the two stories are the location (the docks of Wapping) and the supernatural legacy of evil that lingers through the generations and haunts the residents there. Whether taken as one epic morality tale, or viewed as two separate stories, each is rivetting. Reading this complete novel feels like getting two great stories in one. Sort of like Amistad intercut with Sweeney Todd.
While The English Monster makes for a good “loose yourself” type of mystery, it is on the longer side so think of it as more of a summer-long book or one to take away on a vacation (if you’ll have a lot of down time). It tops out at just over 400 pages and, though it moves at a solid, British clip (whatever that means) – it will take a bit of time to get through. The English Monster is written with a studied clinical touch that lends gravity to the more sensational aspects of the story, and an artistic sensibility that breathes life into these long-dead characters . The author also makes a particularly interesting choice to switch from a third person narrative to a first person perspective (Billy) throughout the novel. With the author’s social commentary, sense of scale, and attention to detail there should be plenty in this novel to keep most readers interested to the final pages. There is a lot here to chew on in this, our wieghtiest summer read to date, so tuck in!