Shepherd-Robinson appears to have read every book, essay and pamphlet ever written about the 18th century, but her knowledge is worn lightly and she brings the period splendidly to life in her horrible but irresistible portrayal of Deptford – a lawless hellhole where every building that isn’t a pub is a brothel. The book could have done with a final round of editorial whack-a-mole to remove some verbal anachronisms, but they are a small price to pay for its easy, fluent style. What is most striking, though, is that the characters manage to play their roles as representatives of the forces of history while being also abundantly individual and full of life.
Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Mantle £14.99) opens with the discovery of a mutilated body in 1780s Deptford. The corpse is that of Tad Archer, a campaigner against the slave trade that gives the Thameside town its prosperity. Archer’s friend Captain Harry Corsham, a hero of the war against the American colonies, is commissioned to investigate his death. In a novel that mixes a tightly plotted crime story with vivid details of Georgian England, Corsham’s inquiries lead him not only into danger but also to learn terrible truths about British merchants’ human trafficking.
In June 1781, a tortured body is found on a hook at Deptford dock, bearing the brand of a slaver. Shortly afterwards, Captain Harry Corsham discovers that his friend, abolitionist Tad Archer, has vanished. Archer possessed information that could destroy the British slave trade, and Corsham is to find that treading in the footsteps of his friend is dangerous work. Laura Shepherd-Robinson has the full measure of her material: period atmosphere, distinctive characters, and the capacity to find modern social relevance in Britain’s unenlightened past. A novel of astonishing skill.