The Poisoned Island combines a mystery, history, and the supernatural. Set mainly in 1811 in London, the place and time move back and forth to preview the incidents that lead to the series of murders plaguing the crew of the ship Solander which has recently docked in London.
Several characters are real; Joseph Banks was famous as a naturalist and botanist and accompanied Cook on his first voyage to the South Pacific, including the island of Tahiti. Banks later funded William Bligh's voyage to Tahiti to gather and transplant breadfruit trees to the Caribbean Islands. Daniel Solander, the Swedish naturalist, and Banks were friends, and Banks was an adviser to George III on the Royal Botanic Gardens. These historical figures and situations figure into the mystery.
Thames Magistrate, John Harriott and River Police officer Charles Horton were also real people, and in the novel pursue a killer who has been murdering members of the crew of the fictitious Solander. The purpose of the Solander's voyage was to gather new and exotic plants; included in the cargo is the unique (and supernatural) example of a breadfruit tree that is unlike any of the others on the island. The crew members that are being murdered are associated, but the motive for the murders is unknown. Horton is charged with the investigation, which he diligently pursues.
(Harriott and Horton also featured in Shepherd's first novel The English Monster based on the infamous Ratcliffe Highway Murders.)
The novel is atmospheric and depicts a London that is scientifically advanced and socially squalid. It is a serious novel that contains no humor; the language and style work well with the period of the early 1800's, and the narrative moves back and forth in time and from one character to another. One important theme is concerned with the way European ships and their crews poisoned many of the places they visited. The physical and mental health of the population, the social system, the religious system, and the environment of Tahiti -- all poisoned.
My interest in historical detail frequently sent me to Google to discover which characters were real, what was accurate concerning historic characters, more about Captain Bligh and the Bounty, more about the Kew Gardens, etc. I learned a great deal about events and incidents of which I previously had only a vague knowledge.
The supernatural element was a negative for me, and I found it distracting and a bit irritating, but Thames River Police, Magistrate Harriott, and officer Charles Horton were interesting. All of the characters, however, have a distance, an impersonal aspect. The only two characters (and they are extremely minor) with a real sense of presence or warmth, are the wife of the Solander's captain and Abigail, the wife of Charles Horton.
In a way, I found the novel both impressive and tedious.
Although I am writing this in August, I will schedule the post for a month before release.
NetGalley/Washington Square Press
Historical Mystery/Supernatural. Jan. 14, 2014. Print Version: 432 pages.