Monday, 20 May 2019

Blood and Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson.

           Laura Shepherd Robinson’s debut novel works well on various levels,  but not as an 18th century crime thriller, as it has been promoted. It starts off promisingly  enough, with a grisly murder in 1781 in the shipbuilding town of Deptford, close to London on the Thames river:  the naked and horribly tortured corpse of young London  lawyer Thaddeus Archer has been found hanging from a lamppost down by the docks. When his sister reports him missing to Archer’s old friend Captain Harry Corsham and the trail leads to Deptford and identification, Corsham is shocked at the lack of cooperation he finds:  none of the town’s worthies, from the Mayor, to Magistrate, to local physician, to rough and ruthless seamen, have any time for Corsham’s enquiries, still less for finding Archer’s killer – for Archer was an Abolitionist, abhorring slavery in Britain, and trying to find any legal means to stamp out the heinous industry in human souls.  Deptford and its inhabitants all depend – indeed, England depends on the human cargo shipped by slavers across the Middle Passage to the Caribbean, there to work in the sugar plantations, so that an Englishman may enjoy sugar in his bowl of tea.  What decent British citizen would question such a right?
            As Corsham delves into the murkier levels of his inquiry his questions unleash violence upon himself, and yet more murders;  it becomes clear that it is not only the local hierarchy of Deptford who are intent at hiding at any cost the evil he uncovers -  especially the voyage of the ‘Dark Angel’, a slave ship that ran low on water halfway home, and threw more than three hundred men, women and children off the ship to drown.  The more Corsham discovers, the more he realises that a very powerful syndicate is pulling the strings, and the legitimate industry of slavery will persist as long as they say so.  Human misery is trumped by profit every time.
            Ms Shepherd-Robinson’s story moves too slowly to be described as a thriller;  dare I say that there are too many minor characters who contribute little to the action, and Corsham asks himself so many questions (no wonder he upsets everybody!) that his introspection becomes a very annoying plot device, BUT!  As a harrowing historical account of the worst sin and indignity that the human race can perpetrate against itself, her story works brilliantly.  FOUR STARS.       

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