At a time when the average temperature across America is a balmy negative 300 degrees, it was a nice change of pace (and scenery) to read Lloyd Shepherd’s The Poisoned Island, which partially takes place in Tahiti. It was an altogether warmer and intriguing story that kept me from thinking about the chills outside!
LONDON 1812: For forty years Britain has dreamed of the Pacific island of Tahiti, a dark paradise of bloody cults and beautiful natives. Now, decades after the first voyage of Captain Cook, a new ship returns to London, crammed with botanical specimens and, it seems, the mysteries of Tahiti.
When, days after the Solander’s arrival, some of its crew are found dead and their sea-chests ransacked – their throats slashed, faces frozen into terrible smiles – John Harriott, magistrate of the Thames river police, puts constable Charles Horton in charge of the investigation. But what connects the crewmen’s dying dreams with the ambitions of the ship’s principal backer, Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society? And how can Britain’s new science possibly explain the strangeness of Tahiti’s floral riches now growing at Kew?
Horton must employ his singular methods to uncover a chain of conspiracy stretching all the way back to the foot of the great dead volcano Tahiti Nui, beneath the hungry eyes of ancient gods.
The Goodreads description doesn’t do this book justice; Shepherd packs so much imagery and description into his prose that my imagination had to work overtime to keep up. I could only imagine the Solander’s arrival, laden with a multitude of colors and scents as it pulled into the docks of dreary London. This was the backdrop for a creepy murder mystery, where all of the victims were found with looks of pure delight frozen on their faces as they were brutally murdered. The constable appointed to look into this mystery is Charles Horton. I took an immediate liking to him, as his natural inclination to investigate connected with me intellectually, and the fact that he is an all-around good guy didn’t hurt either. As these were the days before detective work was commonplace, Horton is forced to do much of his work alone and in secret. What’s more, his wife is inadvertently pulled into the fray, making the level of suspense even higher.
Additionally, Shepherd doesn’t just keep us confined to London, as we travel to Tahiti itself and get to view the mystery from the point of view of a young prince. This added another level of complexity to the story, as this point of view begins to intersect with those of Horton, Horton’s boss, the magistrate of the River Police, and the proprietor of the Solander herself, Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society. With all of these characters so expertly depicted and developed, it was easy to fall right into the story from the first page. My only complaint is that Shepherd got slightly too descriptive at times, which made things lag slightly. Other than this, Shepherd has written a solid work that makes me excited to check out his other novel, The English Monster.
4 out of 5 Stars
The Poisoned Island by Lloyd Shepherd
Simon and Schuster UK (2013)
Hardcover: 386 pages
Special thanks to Simon and Schuster UK for my review copy!