“The Poisoned Island” Lloyd Shepherd (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Poisoned Island Lloyd Shepherd book cover

It’s 1812 and the Solander returns to London docks bringing a cargo of plants from Tahiti which wealthy businessman Sir Joseph Banks has arranged to be transferred to Kew where they can be studied and catalogued. However, when some of the crew members are found murdered in their lodgings, magistrate John Harriott and his constable Charles Horton of the river police force have their work cut out.

Charles Horton’s methods of investigating the crime are highly unusual. The Georgian police prided themselves on getting results, not the accuracy of those results. There was no formal crime recording either so, even a murder, could be left unsolved if a victim didn’t have means or family connections to push for a resolution. There was heavy reliance on witnesses and corruption was rife. There were also territorial squabbles. John Harriott justifies Charles Horton’s investigations as the murder victims were members of the Solander crew. Even so, Charles Horton has problems maintaining the integrity of the crime scenes and collating evidence.

The murders are merely one strand of the story. One of the plants recovered, a breadfruit, has a strange leaf. Tahitians dried the leaf and drank it as tea because of its hallucinogenic qualities. Lloyd Shepherd appreciates that not all his readers are botanists so gives enough details to keep keen gardeners happy whilst not overwhelming non botanists in plant research. Lloyd Shepherd also explores the effects of European visitors on the island and its residents plus the strange case of the ship’s chaplain whose mother was Tahitian and father was British.

“The Poisoned Island” successfully merges fiction with history with as many twists and turns as the narrow London lanes of the time. Despite the fastest transport being a horse, the plot moves credibly at a cracking pace. “The Poisoned Island” is a satisfying whodunit.

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