The Poisoned Island is Otaheite, or Tahiti as we know it better, in the year 1769, but the story moves quickly on to the River Thames in 1812 where the ship “Solander” returns from the paradise of Otaheite, with hundreds of plants carefully preserved by Captain Hopkins for delivery to Sir Joseph Banks, the famous botanist, at Kew Gardens.
It has been a successful trip and the sailors in particular had found their time in Otaheite very rewarding. The new plant specimens are welcomed by Banks and his learned librarian, Scottish botanist, Robert Brown. But some of the sailors carry a lethal secret whose repercussions will effect Banks, Brown and even king George III.
Lloyd Shepherd describes the streets, grand houses and hovels of Georgian London vividly. We walk from place to place or cross the river alongside his characters, seeing, hearing and smelling with their senses.
The book is primarily a murder mystery which is investigated by John Harriott the resident magistrate of the River Police, based in Wapping, aided by his skilful constable Charles Horton. One after another, sailors from the “Solander” are found dead in mysterious circumstances with no apparent motive. Meanwhile, Banks and Brown are astounded by the rapid growth of a breadfruit tree which had been brought back in the ship, after they planted it in warm conditions at Kew.
The murder scenes are gruesome and the extra knowledge given to the reader does not make the identity of the killer any easier to spot. Abigail, independently minded wife of Charles Horton, becomes entangled in danger and a strange mixed race clergyman from the “Solander”, Peter Nott is the first suspect.
This is not a fast moving, action packed mystery but the story of a determined, meticulous detective in an era when such murders were easily dismissed and when the wrong culprit could so easily be incarcerated in a corrupt prison such as Coldbath Fields. The historical details add so much to our involvement in the narrative.
Lloyd Shepherd has chosen to mix real facts about the historical figures with a story he has created which could possibly have happened to them, which I found delightful. Some may find it a little long-winded but I relished the background knowledge which he incorporated into his novel. This is the second of three books about the River Police although it works perfectly as a stand alone novel.
John Roque’s map of London 1747